March 7, 2023

Dr. Gabor Maté – The Undeniable Link of Illness and Wellbeing to Our Collective Ecosystem

In this interview from the 2022 Collective Trauma Summit, Thomas speaks with physician and author of “The Myth of Normal” Dr. Gabor Maté. They discuss how the trauma ingrained in modern society manifests as illness and pulls us away from our authentic selves, and how we can lessen our attachment to “normalcy” in order to foster both individual and collective healing and create a more equitable and awakened future.

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“Healing is possible. And in order to accomplish that healing, we have to really come face to face with the depth and extent of the trauma in our world, not to despair over it, but precisely so that we can gain agency.”

- Dr. Gabor Maté

Guest Information

Dr. Gabor Maté

A renowned speaker and bestselling author, Dr. Gabor Maté is highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics including addiction, stress, and childhood development. Dr. Maté has written several bestselling books, including the award-winning "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction", "When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection", and most recently, "The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture." His works have been published internationally in nearly thirty languages.

Learn more at drgabormate.com

Notes & Resources

In this episode, Thomas and Dr. Maté discuss:

  • How the manifestation of collective trauma shows up in our physiology and reveals the connection between individual health and our collective environment
  • The need to defy unhealthy social conventions and norms in order to achieve self-actualization
  • How we can lessen our attachment to normalcy in order to become the authentic creators of our own lives
  • What can we learn from our collective suffering from COVID, and how can we apply that learning in our response to climate change
  • That healing is possible even when it feels impossible

If you enjoy this conversation, check out Dr. Gabor Maté’s newest book – The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture, available through all major book retailers.

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome back to the Collective Trauma Summit 2022. My name is Thomas Hübl and I’m the convener of the Summit, and I’m very delighted to sit here again with Dr. Gabor Maté. Gabor, very warm welcome this year again.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thomas, it’s nice to be back with you.

Thomas: Yeah. I was looking forward to our conversation because your new book, The Myth of Normal, is something that I’m deeply interested in, and I think we share a passion there. I would love to go deeper with that. Maybe to start us off, with The Myth of Normal, what does that mean? What is normal and how do we normalize things? And how does this relate to our health?

Gabor: Right. So we tend to believe that what is normal is healthy and natural, so as doctors, we talk about a normal range of conditions. So, our blood pressure has to be within normal range, or blood acidity or temperature, they all have to be within a normal range, and so outside that range, we’re no longer healthy.

We tend to identify normal with healthy and natural, which is, in certain areas, like the ones I just described, is a valid correlation. Well, we tend to generalize that normality into life in general, so we tend to think that whatever is normal is healthy and natural.

But to give you a specific example—a very disturbing and fanciful example—but if everybody in Vancouver, where I live, mistreated their dogs, then mistreating your dog would be normal. You’d be abnormal if you didn’t mistreat your dog, but would it be healthy and natural? No, it wouldn’t be either of those things.

A lot of the conditions that we’ve become used to in modern society are normal in the sense that they represent the average. We get so used to them we think this is life, but they’re neither healthy or natural. And what I’m saying about is our culture has become so divorced from the actual needs of human beings that those things we consider normal are neither healthy nor natural, so that normality becomes a myth, number one.

And number two, that the responses to those abnormal conditions like addictions, like depression, like mental health conditions, like a lot of physical illnesses, are actually normal responses to abnormal circumstances. So the abnormality is not in an individual, the abnormality is in the circumstances to which the individual pathology is a normal response.
To give you one just very salient example, one study showed that the more experiences of racism a Black American woman has to endure, the greater her risk for asthma. So the more stress of racism there is, the more her lungs are likely to be inflamed and the airway is constricted.

Are we talking about abnormality in the individual, or are we saying that’s actually a normal response towards an abnormality in the culture, which is the stresses imposed by racism? So this is what I mean by the myth of normal.

Thomas: That’s amazing, because that’s exactly why we do this Summit is to show that also trauma, it exists in individuals, but not only. It’s a systemic thing that we are facing. And within that systemic structural manifestation of trauma, we are navigating in a very limited range, and then it’s exactly what you said.

When we now look at health, or when we look at, as you said, well, like a healthy … You used the word natural before. Maybe you want to speak a bit about healthy and natural. You put these two words together. Maybe you can speak a bit about that.

Gabor: Sure. So every creature, including human beings, evolved in a certain natural environment. And we adapted … Our evolution itself was a series of adaptations to that natural environment. If you wanted to study a zebra, would you study the zebra in a zoo behind a cage? If you want to understand the natural, the true nature of the zebra, where would you study the zebra?

You’d study one in the Savannah, or wherever he or she lives, in its natural environment. Human beings evolved over millions of years, as we know, over hundreds of thousands of years. And even in the existence of her own species, homo sapiens, we’ve been around for 150, 200,000 years. For the vast majority of that time we lived out in nature in small band hunter-gatherer groups.

That’s where we evolved, that’s where our nature was formed in response to nature. So studying human beings today and deriving conclusions about human nature from studying human beings in civilization, conditions of civilization, is like studying zebras in a zoo.

We’re so divorced from our natural environment. A civilization—which of course has many achievements, advances, to its credit, going back to ancient times—is a new blip in human life. So even if our own species– if we’ve existed for a whole hour, then civilization is about 5 minutes of that hour, 5 or 10 minutes.

And in those conditions of nature, our essence was to live connected to nature, to live connected to each other, in a communal, collaborative setting where children were always with their parents, where children’s needs were not frustrated but they were met, and where it wasn’t this belief that life is all about individual people competing aggressively and selfishly against one another.

That’s not how it evolved. So modern society has come as far away from our natural way of being as possible, and that invariably imposes pathology on people because our needs are no longer being met. The real challenge that we face as a civilization, and I’d say under globalized capitalism, as the world’s civilization is …

Can we create societies in ways of being that incorporate the achievements and the findings and benefits of modern science and modern technology and modern forms of social organization with our evolution-determined needs and nature? So that’s the challenge that we face. Under present society, that challenge is woefully underappreciated, and this is why there’s so much suffering.

Thomas: When I look at the process of a, let’s say, a traumatized individual client, and you see different symptoms emerge. Behind those symptoms there are kind of deeper underlying processes that are responsible for the symptoms, and what you described now that we got more and more disassociated in our civilization from nature, what’s that a process of? What’s that a symptom of? What’s the underlying process? How do you see the development? How come that we are for such a long time in alignment with nature and then in the last five minutes of the hour, we jump out of alignment and, whatever, we are a bit disconnected from our natural environment? Can you speak a bit to how that starts?

Gabor: Well, I can talk about it how it starts historically and I can talk about how it starts on the individual level. Historically speaking, what happened was that as soon as we developed agriculture and we began to develop accumulated wealth, then there began a process of society dividing into classes; those that controlled, and those that were controlled. Hunter-gatherer groups tend to be fairly egalitarian.

Even if there’s a chief, the chief doesn’t control everybody. The chief has a certain purpose, but he’s under the umbrella of the community. But once you start having private property and wealth and ownership and then there’s the attachment to wealth and to power, then what you have is the imbalance or the suppression of the matriarchy in favor of the patriarchy so that there’s a real imbalance within the feminine and the masculine.

What we call feminine and what we call masculine are both aspects of every human being, but under civilization, increasingly the matriarch or the feminine is suppressed and the masculine is emphasized. Now you get the governing of the intellect over the emotions rather than a healthy balance between the two.

You have social inequality, and then eventually the actual enslavement of human beings in the service of others, the exploitation and oppression of certain groups in favor of other groups of elites, and so on. So that’s what happened on the social/historical level, and that has continued, you know, it has taken different forms. In ancient Greece, you had slaves. In ancient Rome, you had slaves, then you had the upper classes, then you had the common people in between.

In modern society there’s been a gradual exacerbation of inequality, so that even under COVID inequality greatly increased. The people that had got a lot more and the people that didn’t lost even more. So that this process of inequality, which has been a feature of civilization, has become grossly exaggerated to the point where something like eight individuals own as much as the bottom half of human beings in terms of wealth.

I mean, that’s incredible and that’s going to have huge impacts. So that’s on a social, economic, political level. On the individual level what happens is that human beings are born with certain needs, in fact, certain expectations. It’s not even that we’re born with certain expectations, we are an expectation.

Jean Liedloff, in her wonderful book, The Continuing Concept, talks about lungs are an expectation for oxygen. In other words, lungs don’t expect oxygen, they are an expectation for oxygen. Lungs evolved because there was oxygen around. If there was no oxygen, there’d be no lungs. Human beings are born as expectations for what? Unconditional loving acceptance, continuous presence and contact and attachment with nurturing adults, the capacity to experience all our emotions.

All our emotions, from pain, to grief, to anger, to anxiety, to joy. We are expectations for free play out in nature. Now, the more these expectations that we’re programmed with by evolution are frustrated, the more traumatized we’re going to be, even if we’re not treated badly. So that modern society …

Because of the parenting advice we give to parents, I could step back a moment and say, “This begins in the uterus. The infant in the womb has certain expectations, is certain expectation, for a stress-free environment.” Now, the more women are stressed during pregnancy, the more chance of their kids are having mental health problems later on, and behavioral problems, and learning problems.

The more animals are stressed during pregnancy—under laboratory conditions—the more their infants are likely to become addicted to substances as adults. So already in the womb we have certain expectations. Then we are an expectation for certain a kind of birth. Now, in the modern world internationally, the cesarean section rate is now close to 40%. It should be around 10% or 15%.

10% or 15% of the time cesarean sections are essential to save the mother’s and/or the baby’s life and health. Beautiful modern advance. 40% is a heavy-handed interruption and interferes with the natural process. Birth as a process is designed by nature to not just to get the baby out of the womb, but to prepare the baby for life outside the womb. Natural birth releases certain hormones in mother and baby that prepares them for that bonding relationship.

Now, again, in a certain percentage of cases, it’s absolutely life-saving to have the availability of expert medical intervention, but to have it like that about close to half the time now, that’s an interference with natural expectation for a process that was designed beautifully by nature. That’s just pregnancy and birth. Then I can talk about all the ways that parents are given the wrong advice about how to raise children, and the stresses under which parents have to raise children.

So even if conditions are not what you might say are overtly traumatic, children are still being wounded by the lack of natural development that this society denies them. This is a condition that breeds trauma on a massive level, even if we avoid war and abuse and neglect and sexual exploitation, which of course are very prevalent. We live in a traumatizing society.

Thomas: Mm-hmm. You are speaking about the one side of the coin that is the needs that we have that need to be met as we grow up. The other side of the coin—maybe you can speak to that a bit too—is every one of us, I believe, one of our needs or expectations is our creative output.

So there’s what needs to come in and there is what needs to go out. Maybe you can speak a bit to what it means to have the freedom of one’s creative expression in the world, or if that’s kind of boxed in and we can’t give our contribution to the world because we are stuck in circumstances. So maybe you can speak to that part too.

Gabor: Absolutely. I talked about the needs of children, but as adults we also have needs. These needs are also ingrained in us through evolution as part of our nature. These are not luxuries. One of our needs is connection and contact with other human beings. This society isolates.

The incidence of loneliness is going up and up and up and up dramatically, to the point that Britain has had to appoint a minister for loneliness. That’s how bad it’s become. What you mentioned about creativity. We have a need for meaning and purpose in our lives. That’s an actual need. When that need is frustrated, people suffer. Now, what happens is for a lot of people is that they have this …

And when the Bible says that we’re created in the image of God, we are created in the image of God, God the creator. We are meant to be creators ourselves. Not automatic producers of goods or products or behaviors, but we’re really creative agents where it’s our vision and our creative dynamic that brings forth something new in the world.

That could be different for you, and it is different for you than it is for me and it’s a very individual thing, but it’s a need that we have. The modern society in many ways suppresses people’s authentic selves, expects people to fit in with other people’s expectations, expects us to work very hard to be acceptable and admirable in the eyes of others, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with our own creative urges.

Our creative urges and our authentic selves might want to lead in totally different directions, but if the threat is that if we follow our own inner guidance, we won’t be so acceptable to society or to other people, in that tension … what I call authenticity versus attachment.

Very often the authenticity loses out so that we can stay connected, but that means we’re giving up a part of ourselves and that’s a huge stress. And that stress shows up in both physical and mental illness, or alienation, or a sense of frustration, or a sense of, “What is my life all about anyway?” Now, we can use that frustration.

If that frustration shows up, rather than being frustrated by being frustrated, we can say, “Oh, what is my system organism trying to tell me? How have I strayed from being authentic towards seeking acceptance and attachment at all costs?” So it can be a creative tension, but at the base of it is what you allude to, which is that we need to be our authentic creators in our lives, not just in our lives, but of our lives.

Thomas: Beautiful. Yeah, I completely agree. In my understanding, we can take it even a step further and can say, “Okay, another need is the need of our soul.” Like it’s kind of our spiritual route, and in many ways we could say we created—at least in the west—a society where often spirituality is almost discriminated against, like it’s something that’s being ridiculed or not …

People do this outside of their offices and then they are a CEO, or then they go to do whatever they do, but they do it secretly. So maybe you can speak a bit to how a hurt of our deeper spiritual nature is also part of what you are talking about.

Gabor: My second to last chapter is actually on spirituality.
Thomas: Great. Nice.

Gabor: I know Thomas, that you have pursued spiritual practices. If there’s any comparison that can be made much more deeply than I have, I mean, you devoted more of your life to that than I have, we work in different realms, so you probably have a deeper answer to your question than I might be able to give you. But for me, despite my very rationalistic mind and training, and even my prejudice against religion …

I say prejudice based on my childhood experience, because when I was growing up, barely having survived the Holocaust … I often talk about this, there was a joke … In communist Eastern Europe, where I grew up, there used to be a joke which said you could be honest and intelligent or a member of the communist party. In fact, you could be any two of those three things, but not three at the same time.

If you’re honest and intelligent, you couldn’t join the party. If you were honest and joined the party, you couldn’t be very intelligent, and so on. Now, I had the same attitude towards God, the God they were teaching me about. That God was omniscient, all good, and omnipotent. All good, all-seeing, and all-powerful.

I rebelled against that, because if God was all good and all-powerful, he couldn’t know very much, because if he did, he wouldn’t allow my grandparents to perish in Auschwitz, or almost send me there as an infant. If God was all good and all-knowing, he can’t be very powerful, because if he was powerful, he would’ve stopped it.

So I was really hostile to this whole idea of the God that they were selling me. Just didn’t make any sense to me. But I also noticed in myself a real anger whenever even God came up. Now, why was I angry? I could have dismissed with those ideas. What was the anger? Because I so badly wanted to believe in something greater than myself. That was a need of mine.

That need to connect with something larger and to be a part of it and actually to surrender to it, that’s a need of human beings. That’s as much of a need as the need to have meaning and to have purpose and to have creativity. That’s our nature, I’ve come to understand as an adult. And apropos to what you said about this we go to work, we do this, I spoke to this spiritual teacher and meditation teacher I think you know, Jack Kornfield, and here’s what Jack said.

He said, “We live in a world that’s split.” Jack Kornfield told me. “Our psyche is split. We make money by going to work, and we take care of our bodies in the gym, and we maybe take care of our psyche a little bit in therapy, and we do the arts when we go to a concert, and we do the sacred by going to the church or the synagogue or the mosque or something like that. They’re all in compartments as if the sacred was somehow separate from the work we do or the music that we make.” So even in our alienating and splitting society, even our spiritual nature is split out from our everyday activity, and I think that’s what your question implies.

Thomas: Beautiful. Yeah, very much so. Very much so. When we look now … So we looked at a few areas where basically the systemic aspect wjere a distorted systemic aspect that we all co-create somehow, because there is not a systemic aspect outside of me, so there’s always an interdependence that all of …

I often say, “There’s no individual shadow, there’s only a shared investment into our shadow corporation in the world.” So every one of us carries, of course, individual, let’s say, shadow or unconscious parts, but it’s not that my unconscious can exist without you, without anybody around me. It doesn’t work. So when we say, “Now, okay, the situation that we are in is a co-creation of all of us, so there is not this system just outside, it’s in all of us.”

What do you suggest also, maybe in your book, or how do you look at it? Well, what options do we have? And maybe before that, the last thing that I wanted to ask you is capitalism as a basic driver of our world, how does that fit into it, and then maybe to look what are our options?

Gabor: Sure. Well, the thing about capitalism is sort of the latest iteration of what we call civilization, and it’s a globalized one, so it’s pretty much conquered the world, which is why we’re seeing that all the ailments that are associated with it are also become globalized. Obesity has become a huge problem in China since China’s joined the globalized capitalist world.

ADHD, which didn’t used to exist in China, now it’s become a public health concern. Now, the one thing where I’ll give you a little bit of a pushback, I quite agree that we all co-create, even if unconsciously, our mutually shared situation, but we don’t quite do it on an equal basis. There are certain people that do have a lot more power than others, like somebody …

Those eight people that own half the wealth in the world, they have a lot more power. It’s not quite accurate to say that I’m just as powerful as they are in influencing social conditions. When somebody can decide [snaps] like that, “I want to throw 10,000 people out of work,” or “I’m going to impose certain work conditions or social conditions,” there’s extraordinary power imbalance in this world, and we have to recognize that.

It’s not that we all quite co-create to the same degree. Having said that, to the extent that we buy into it, to the extent that we accept it as, “This is normal, this is natural, it can’t be another way,” we’re complicit. Or not even complicit, we’re participating. So interestingly enough, in my last chapter, I refer to the great psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose work I know you’re familiar with, and Maslow looked at self-actualized human beings.

And actually, do you mind if I find that passage? Because it’s almost on the last page of the book and he talks about this very issue. And if I just may have the luxury of quoting from my own book here, I’ll read you a paragraph. As it turns out … Well, let me tell you one more thing. This is from the last chapter.

Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi functionary who was sort of the engineer of the genocide—and he’s the one who sent my grandparents to Auschwitz and almost sent me to Auschwitz as an infant, and I can tell you an interesting story about that—but when he was brought to trial in Israel, he was examined by a bunch of psychiatrists. You know what they said about him?

They said he was perfectly normal, and they said that they found his whole psychological outlook, including his relationship with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brother and sisters and friends was not only normal, but most desirable. So a lot of the most horrific acts in the world worldwide are committed by people that are considered the most normal in their societies.
Now, as compared to that, there’s Abraham Maslow. He said, “As it turns out, it is often individuals who define conventional normality who are the healthy ones.” The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, made the investigation of self-actualization, the attainment of authentic satisfaction, not based on external valuation, his life work.

And he said, “A study of people healthy enough to be self-actualized reveals that they were not called well adjusted in the naive sense of approval of identification with the culture.” These healthy people, he suggested, had a complex relationship with their much less healthy culture. So these people chose authenticity versus fitting in.

As a result, they were much more creative, much more self-actualized. They were not automatic rebels, they were not so-called political activists, but when it came to values, they knew who they were and they knew how to diverge from the values of their much less healthy culture. That’s the level on the individual level.

On the group level—where you and I work with groups—is the guidance as to how you define what’s authentically true for you even if, and especially if it contradicts the values of the very unhealthy culture that you belong to. So it’s really of being in the world, but not of it, is a phrase that I knew that we have all used quite a bit, but that’s the essence of it. And it’s difficult because it goes against our programming and it goes against social expectation.

Thomas: What I like is the distinction that you make is the total conformist, but then there is a kind of rebellion against that, and then there is another … Like self-actualization is actually something else. There is a freedom that allows us to choose differently, and that choice is really … That’s very powerful what you’re saying, I like it very much.

And I just want to underline that it’s different than being against something, is choosing something else. I think that’s very powerful, and so when we look now … Because in my understanding, the question is if … Of course there are power structures and so on, but let’s stay with the part of all of us that participates in some way in this kind of world.

When we bring in trauma now, how is the dimension of individual, ancestral, and systemic trauma now part of the whole situation that we are in? I know you dealt with trauma for many many … For a long time. And when you see, when you work with clients or when you work with groups, how does the trauma and the unconscious trauma component that is maybe systemic add to what you laid out now through the entire conversation?

Gabor: I’ll give you one specific example and let’s see if that approaches what you’re inquiring about. The situation of women, for example. Now, women have 80% of autoimmune disease. Women have double the risk of PTSD. They’re much more likely to take anti-depressant medication than men.

Now, is that an individual pathology on the part of half the population, or is there a manifestation of the sensual suppression of the feminine and the subjugation of the feminine to the masculine under conditions of patriarchy? And what you find with autoimmune disease, it has a lot to do with self-suppression. So very often the woman gets autoimmune disease because this society expects women to suppress their own healthy anger.

And like under COVID, for example, there was a study in the States that showed that women took on the stresses of their families and their husbands and they felt guilty that they couldn’t ease the stresses of their families. Now, there was another study in Canada that showed that after open heart surgery, men recover better than women do. Then they looked at what happens.

What happens is that after a man has open heart surgery, he goes home and gets taken care of by his wife. After a woman has open heart surgery, she goes back and becomes the caretaker again. So this automatic suppression of the feminine, or the enrollment of the feminine culturally in the service of what we think is the masculine, is a source of pathology in women, but that has to do with centuries old, thousands of years old suppression of the feminine.

So this shows up in a very practical sense in both the physiology and in the mental condition of half the population. It’s collective. It goes back to the burning of witches, it goes back to the rape, it goes back to the collective traumatization, a gender-based traumatization of a certain part of the population. So in the Western world, we tend to individualize this and pathologize it.

There was a study, Thomas, that showed that women with symptoms of PTSD have double the risk of ovarian cancer, showing the unity of mind and body. But that stressing of women isn’t just an individual … By the way, I’m not arguing that men are not stressed, I’m just talking about a certain dynamic here.

We’re talking about long-term, collective, hundreds of years of trauma and cultural programming. Now, when that intersects with race, for example, then you get the situation where Black or non-Caucasian women have multiple the risk of autoimmune disease, even higher than Caucasian women.

And in Canada, an Indigenous woman has six times the rate of rheumatoid arthritis than that of a non-Indigenous non-woman. This is in a population that never used to have rheumatoid arthritis. What we’re looking at here is just one example, is the manifestation of collective trauma showing up in the physiology of individuals.

Thomas: No, that’s beautiful. Exactly. And what is beautiful, what I hear through your words, is that individual health doesn’t make sense without a collective environment that that individual health is part of, because they’re not separate. It’s one condition. And so I think that’s a very powerful …

Because that’s what I sometimes call interdependent medicine, but it’s how do we dispel or melt that kind of hyper-individualism and take more and more in account what you said right now? I think that’s very [crosstalk].

Gabor: Well, exactly. First off, when you said interdependent, the Buddha talked about the interdependent core rising of phenomena. Without the many there can’t be the one. Without the one, there can’t be a many. That’s what the Buddha said. Then there’s this … I have to peddle the book on my desk here.

It’s called Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story, and it’s by an American physician and psychologist called Lewis Mehl-Madrona who’s of native Lakota Sioux tradition, and Lewis told me that in a Lakota tradition—apropos to what you just said—when somebody gets sick, the community says, “Thank you. Your illness is manifesting the dysfunction of our whole community.”

Thomas: Exactly. Exactly.

Gabor: So your healing is our healing. You just happen to be the sensitive one who is manifesting something that’s true about all of us. Now, the strange thing, or maybe not so strange thing, is that’s ancient, traditional wisdom but it’s also modern science. Modern science has shown the interdependence of the individual … I call it interpersonal biology.

Our mutual friend, Daniel Siegel, talks about interpersonal neurobiology. Well, as a physician, I take that a step further and I say, not just the neurobiology is interpersonal, so is our biology in general. Which means that illness in individual is a manifestation of a collective phenomena. So that what you call interdependent medicine is not only traditional wisdom, but maddeningly, it’s also the latest modern science. And I say maddeningly because even though the science is there, medical practice ignores it.

Thomas: And that’s always how long it takes until the newest insights seep into the mainstream culture. That’s often like—

Gabor: Or in this case, the oldest insights, because the Buddha said it 2500 years ago.

Thomas: Exactly. Right. Maybe that’s still the future for most of us.

Gabor: Yeah.

Thomas: It’s so rich and I have so many ideas when we speak. What are ways … Because in one way, I believe radical relationality, which means sense-making, like cognition and sensing unified, is I believe one remedy for what we talk about, because in a way we need more and more collective awareness of these collective structures that you’re talking about. And the question is how to induce this growing collective …

And your book is one way to do that, but maybe you can speak a little bit, how do we wake up collectively within those collective structures that we were all born into? That kind of collective field conditioned every one of us, so there is, by nature, part of it is invisible to us given the conditioning, so what can we do in order to take a little bit what’s … Like the last 150 years of individual therapy and all kinds of stuff, how do we take that to a collective level? Maybe you can speak a bit to that.

Gabor: Well, I mean, first of all, I have to confess I don’t have a totally satisfactory answer to that, because I don’t know how to wake people up. You know the expression, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink?

Thomas: Mm-hmm.

Gabor: You can’t even lead him to water. And the great baseball player and manager Yogi Barrow had this great saying, he said, “If the people don’t want to go to the ball game, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.” You can’t force people into awakening. That’s a process. Now, for me, I know you had a certain process of awakening that was really a spiritual process, and you came to certain realizations.

I think our route might have been a bit different. In my case, I didn’t have such a kind of illumination. I had to suffer, and I think a lot of people do. So I quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus, who says that the way the Master or the God created us, we have to suffer into truth. I think for a lot of people it’s suffering that is the wake-up call. I don’t recommend it, but I know that for a lot of people it’s a mental health crisis, it’s a personal crisis like a divorce, it’s depression, or it’s a physical disease that forms the impetus, so that provides impetus for the wake-up.

The first thing I say to people is, “When things go wrong in your life,” I say wrong in quotation marks, “Rather than just see it as a problem to get rid of, just ask the question, what is life trying to teach me here?” And in a book I have a chapter called “Disease as Teacher”.

I don’t recommend disease as a way of learning, but if it shows up, there’s often learning that can be gained by looking at it honestly. And if that applies at an individual level, it also applies on a social level. The world has just been through, in fact hasn’t completed going through, this COVID pandemic.

Now, we can look upon that as just as a terrible thing to get rid of, and of course it’s perfectly natural that we want to get over it and past it, and I’m very grateful personally—whatever people think of vaccines or so on—I’m grateful for them personally, because in my medical view they’ve saved lives, but that’s not enough, because what if COVID could also be a wake-up call?
If a disease can be a wake-up call at an individual level, the pandemic could be a wake-up call on the collective level. Now, what did we learn during COVID? Things that we should have learned a long time ago. One is we’re all connected as human beings, and then when we lose that connection, we suffer. That’s a big teaching.

Well, the question is, can we carry that teaching forward post-COVID or do we go back to the normal that existed before COVID, of disconnection and isolation and aggressive, selfish relationships? That’s one teaching. Another teaching from COVID is, COVID wasn’t an equal opportunity invader. Certain people were much more prone to fall victims to it; people that were the elderly, were living in neglected, isolated conditions, people of color, people of lower socioeconomic classes.

Are we going to allow that learning to help us create a more equitable, less discriminatory, in a racial sense, society? COVID taught us … There was a certain degree of cooperation internationally when it came to confronting COVID. Not as much as it should have been, but there was a lot of exchange of information. How do we tackle this global burden globally?

What if we asked the same question about the climate? Which is as great a threat as COVID ever was, not just in the future, but already in the present. So are we going to learn these lessons? Are we going to let this disease be our teacher? Are we going to suffer into truth? I’m not convinced that we are, but I’m saying if we’re to move forward, that’s the attitude we have to take is what can we learn from our collective suffering?

Thomas: That’s very much true. What I also hear is the deep … I think one of the deep answers that you also gave right now is that if our suffering and problems will not fall prey to the repetition compulsion of the trauma, the original traumatization, which is splitting something off, and so going through our life, we tried to split off what has been split off already much earlier.

And so when you said turning the difficulties into our teachers, that’s actually a process of taking things back in, like integrating our past, and that’s very powerful and that’s a great … For example, that would be, for me, one of the collective awakenings is if more and more of us practice just what you said right now, then we are already awakening because we become more and more whole and less and less fragmented. It’s powerful.

Gabor: And I would say also that, like your work on collective trauma, like when you do one of your workshops or events, it’s not just that a whole lot of individuals are in an isolated sense working on their trauma. It’s that people find great relief and liberation in recognizing their commonality with others. All of a sudden the journey becomes not an isolated, lonely one, but becomes a joint journey.

I mean, that’s just the teaching here, and that’s the teaching that has been around forever, but even as the crisis of globalized capitalism deepens and it casts its shadows more broadly across the whole world, more and more people are also waking up. The situation is dire as it becomes. It also evokes its response in a healing sense.

Thomas: Beautiful. Yeah, I see the time is quite progressed, I don’t want to stretch your time too much. I would love to continue because I always feel very on fire when we talk because I feel so many similarities, and it’s so beautiful. Is there anything about your book, about anything that we didn’t talk about that you at the end of our conversation want to still bring in?

Gabor: It’s only to emphasize that you wouldn’t do the work I do … Sorry. You wouldn’t do the work I do, that’s a nice Freudian slip. You wouldn’t do the work you do, and I would not have written this book, and you would not have written your book, if we didn’t each fervently know, not just believe, but know that healing is possible.

And in order to accomplish that healing, we have to really come face to face with the depth and extent of the trauma in our world, not to despair over it, but precisely so that we can gain agency. Very often when I do webinars or workshops, people will make hopeless statements about themselves. I can tell you that I used to believe …

I used to believe for a long time that I can help others, but there’s something in me that could never be healed. It was so deep and so early and so ingrained that it was beyond healing. I don’t believe that anymore about myself. I’ve never believed it about anybody else either, and so that we would not be doing this work, and the people listening, whatever they may believe, they would not be listening if at least a part of them didn’t realize that liberation is possible.

So that’s what I want to leave people with, and I hope they’ll check out my book, because everything I’ve ever learned pretty much is … At least everything I ever learned up to the point that I finished writing the book is in the book. What I keep learning, maybe we’ll talk about next year.

Thomas: Of course. I would love that, Gabor, and such a pleasure. It’s great to find allies to do this collective work together, and so it’s wonderful. Thank you so much.

Gabor: Thank you, Thomas. Take care.