Marcela Ot’alora — How to Become a Psychedelic Therapist (#396)

Photo by Travis Lilley (@travislilleyphoto)

“The only way to not be afraid of someone’s suffering is if you’re not afraid of your own.”

— Marcela Ot’alora G.

Marcela Ot’alora G. is a psychotherapist and an installation artist. Her interest and focus on trauma has led her to understand the healing process as an intimate reconnection with one’s essence through love, integrity, acceptance, and honoring of the human spirit. In addition to working with trauma and PTSD, she has dedicated her professional life to teaching and research. She uses art as a vehicle for deepening the relationship to self, others, and the natural world.

Marcela worked as a co-therapist in MAPS’ very first government regulated MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study in Madrid, Spain. She served as the principal investigator for MAPS’ phase two MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study, and is currently in the MDMA healthy volunteer study and phase three in Boulder, Colorado.

She is also a trainer and supervisor for therapists working on MAPS studies for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

You can find additional resources from this episode in the show notes below. They are also separately curated on this page:

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#396: Marcela Ot’alora — The Art and Science of Psychedelic Therapy and Healing

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Want to hear another episode about the future of psychedelic science? — Listen to this panel I moderated in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference 2019. It includes a great overview of psychedelic science, investing opportunities, anecdotal personal benefits, legal challenges, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download.)

#377: Psychedelics — Microdosing, Mind-Enhancing Methods, and More

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Marcela Ot’alora G.:



  • Marcela shares her childhood dreams of growing up to be a fire truck while playing cards with the inmates at the mental health hospital where her mother worked — the place she felt safest in violence-torn Medellín, Colombia. [09:03]
  • After arriving in the United States, how did Marcela’s interest in psychedelic therapy begin? [12:50]
  • What happened in the days and weeks following her first breakthrough MDMA experience with MAPS founder Rick Doblin? What made her own experiences so powerful, and how, specifically, did she believe MDMA could be of help to others? [18:26]
  • Influences outside of Rick and MAPS that have shaped Marcela’s approach to becoming the therapist she is today. [23:01]
  • Interested in becoming a psychedelic therapist? Here’s some advice from Marcela (and a link to a page of resources to guide you). [27:02]
  • What is the WAIT acronym, and why should therapists always keep it in mind? [32:23]
  • We touch on Hakomi therapy and other modalities that translate well into MDMA psychotherapy, and Marcela explains how communicating with parts of ourselves in non-ordinary states can differ depending on how they’re approached. [33:49]
  • What is the MT-1 study, and how does it help aspiring psychedelic therapists train for what they can expect in sessions ahead by using MDMA and alternative methods of reaching non-ordinary states such as holotropic breathwork and yoga? [36:29]
  • What are the qualification checkboxes needed if one wants to become a psychedelic therapist within the structure of current legal restrictions, and how does Marcela feel about where the FDA is leaning in negotiations over licensing? [39:41]
  • Before committing to years of academic work (and funding) to secure a PhD in psychology, how might someone get a basic feel for what psychedelic therapy work entails? [45:30]
  • A realistic look at just how difficult and un-sexy psychedelic therapy work can be. [49:38]
  • The therapist can’t rely on the medicine to carry the session. He or she needs to be prepared if things don’t go according to plan in order to make sure the situation doesn’t actually worsen the condition being treated. [53:49]
  • What other worries does Marcela have looking forward as things continue to become more popular and more people hope to become involved in psychedelic therapy to some capacity? What questions still need to be answered? [58:14]
  • What is the role of the therapist when a subject is so inner-directed that they’re silent throughout the entire session? [1:00:23]
  • As a therapist, what does Marcela remember as her hardest sessions, and what made them so difficult? [1:03:02]
  • What does preparation look like for a session directed under MAPS protocol? What are the rules that must be followed once a session has begun, and how might a therapist deal with someone in a non-ordinary state who no longer wants to comply with these rules? [1:04:46]
  • How is psychedelic therapy like alchemy — especially when trying to help someone work with their own overwhelming feelings of self-judgment? [1:09:16]
  • In Marcela’s experience, what separates a good psychedelic therapist from a great psychedelic therapist? [1:11:02]
  • In order to ensure the subject’s treatment isn’t somehow contaminated by external factors, where does the psychedelic therapist draw the line between self-disclosure and professional distance? [1:14:56]
  • What are the rules of engagement when Marcela and her co-therapist (who also happens to be her husband) have a disagreement during a session? What might cause such a disagreement, and how has it affected the outcome when it has happened? [1:17:01]
  • How many preparatory sessions lead up to an eight-hour MDMA session, what is their duration, and how many/how long are the post sessions that exit the experience? [1:19:22]
  • Just to alleviate the misconception some might have about MDMA being a quick and painless fix for what ails you: trauma hurts whether it’s coming or going. Expect hard work and no small amount of suffering. [1:20:47]
  • Where can people learn more about the options that are available for exploring this work and understanding what’s involved? (Find the big list here.) [1:24:14]
  • “Science is an organized kind of wonder.” Marcela’s work is informed as much by poetry, art, and imagery as it is by science. Here’s a short list of reading we both recommend (the much longer list can be found here). [1:30:08]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:36:58]

Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy (Resources)

Training Resources

Individuals interested in the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy and research can visit the MAPS Public Benefit Corp Therapy Training webpage to sign up for the training newsletter to receive updates on training opportunities and view application procedures and requirements for the MDMA Therapy Training Program.

The MAPS PBC Therapy Provider Connect Portal is a community discussion forum for therapy providers, physicians, and facilities to connect with one another to develop a site or treatment staff, in order to become eligible to participate in a MAPS Public Benefit Corp MDMA PTSD protocol.

Another training opportunity for practitioners interested in the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy is the CIIS Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies and Research Certificate. Additionally, there are alternative therapeutic approaches available now that can be complementary to psychedelic-assisted therapy, such as Internal Family SystemsHolotropic BreathworkHakomi, and Somatic Experiencing.

Other useful experiences on the path to becoming a psychedelic therapist may include volunteering to provide psychedelic peer harm reduction through the Zendo Project, opportunities to work with the individuals at the end of life as a chaplain or death doula, mediating peer support groups, or supporting individuals impacted by trauma.

Information for students interested in the field of psychedelic therapy and research can be found on the MAPS website.

Recommended Reading List

The Way of the Psychonaut: Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys (Volume One) and (Volume Two) by Stan Grof

The Cosmic Game: Explorations of the Frontiers of Human Consciousness by Stan Grof

Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy by Stan Grof

Consciousness Medicine: Indigenous Wisdom, Entheogens, and Expanded States of Consciousness for Healing and Growth by Françoise Bourzat and Kristina Hunter

The Ethics of Caring: Honoring the Web of Life in Our Professional Healing Relationships by Kylea Taylor

The Healing Journey: Pioneering Approaches to Psychedelic Therapy by Claudio Naranjo

War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Edward Tick

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield

The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace by Jack Kornfield

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle

From Fixation to Freedom: The Enneagram of Liberation by Eli Jaxon-Bear

Essential Enneagram: The Definitive Personality Test and Self-Discovery Guide by David Daniels and Virginia Price

Doing Not Doing: A Facilitator’s Guide by Tav Sparks

The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman

Body-Centered Psychotherapy by Ron Kurtz

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

Soulcollage: An Intuitive Collage Process for Individuals and Groups by Seena B. Frost

Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them by Hans Biedermann

The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary by Angeles Arrien

The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change by Diana Fosha

Right Use Of Power: The Heart of Ethics by Cedar Barstow

The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment by Adyashanti

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter A. Levine

The Inner World of Trauma by Donald Kalsched

Confrontation with the Unconscious: Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience by Scott J. Hill

Additional Reading Focused on Cultural Trauma and Culturally Informed Care

Toward Psychologies of Liberation by Mary Watkins and Helene Schulman

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem

Embodied Social Justice by Rae Johnson

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Joy DeGruy

Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin DiAngelo

Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy by Chris Crass

The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

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19 Replies to “Marcela Ot’alora — How to Become a Psychedelic Therapist (#396)”

  1. I am super looking forward to hearing this. I am surprised by the excellent female interviewees you’ve chosen lately, especially on meditation and psychedelics. I loved the story of the stuttering tree climber who was lucky enough not to get struck by lightning. The Cnn 60 minutes special was very profound, and I find the soup behind the steam to be even more important such as the phenomenon of growing pot. homemade grow kits are Not something that could be done with ecstasy or mushrooms. That’s the only way to get the pubic approval otherwise its another commodity. Whats your shipping address email me it. Ode to the new born Tim!

  2. I was a skeptic and have started to be won over entirely due to Tim. Was happy to see a shout-out to him in JAMA, a pretty mainstream publication, with an in-depth interview on the topic. Very cool potential. So many patients could benefit; I am thinking of all the patients I take care of in inner city Chicago–more violent than some war zones.

  3. Thank you Tim and Marcela,

    I was in the audience for this one. Marcela’s communication style can be described as “soft”. At the back of the room she was hard to hear. I am so glad I chose to listen to the podcast. She is a gem. My onsite experience combined with hearing the audio were a perfect pair. It encourages me to adopt a softer communication style in my life. W.A.I.T and “science is an organized kind of wonder” will be written on my whiteboard when I return to work.

  4. Role-playing it is one of the central methods of Georgi Lozanov Suggestopedia. If you live outside your comfort zone by pretending, you are released from your preconceived ideas that your brain, basic brain, governs your comfort zone, and underlying reactionary responses which are after the fact rationalized by the neocortex in order to placate their limbic brain’s emotional discomfort. Then you can learn or recognize more readily inner workings of our brains. This increase how much and how fast your can learn curriculum. As for being happy, it is a state mind that can be learned by removing or more effectively reprogramming said preconceived ideas.

    No mention of TRE (Traumatic Release Exercise.) Magic drugs don’t exist. Non-ordinary states are dynamic and psychosomatic. Reactionism at its simplest. You can trick your muscles to release miasisms and stress from all sources. It is the natural way to relieve stress, traumas, PTSD, etc.

    12 step programs also have sponsorship, but ultimately it is cognitive behavior modification that teaches us to self regulate and learn self-control.

    But you can find Jedi trainers on Craigslist. 😛

  5. Great podcast and information! Many years ago I had some personal experiences in this area and came across an interesting book called Psychedelic Chemistry. One book I’d recommend for your related reading list is Forgiveness and Child Abuse: Would You Forgive by Lois Einhorn.

  6. Hi Tim

    thank you very much for the possibility, to “see” and hear:


    I got the understanding from how treatment can look like as well.

    Now, I can understand a lot more about treatment in “your” way (at least this “official” one) during this episode/conversation, and can use this understanding for people with a similarity.


  7. Where does one go to find 10+days of retreat? The use of psychotropic appears to be helpful. I’ve suffered with depression since my early 20’s and it appears I will not be appropriate due to the studie’s age requirements. I am 70 – a very young & healthy 70 but they are looking for younger subjects. PLEASE any help would be appreciated.

    Sincerely, Margot

  8. So exciting! Myself and a group of McMaster students are planning a psychedelic conference this coming year to disseminate current research, and it’s applications for clinical psychology.

    Thanks Tim for supporting these cutting-edge therapeutic interventions!

  9. Thank you for this Tim. I have lived with PTSD my whole life due to chronic childhood trauma. I’ve explored CBT, creative expression, emdr, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, medication, but still have symptoms and am still seeking a deeper shift and have long been excited by the idea of the possibility of MDMA therapy. It is so true that the trauma is stored in the body. My question as someone also on the autism spectrum, how do the facilitators take into account other co-morbid conditions? For example, someone with ASD and PTSD may have other sensory and cognitive challenges that can make communication or receiving information during a session very challenging and could trigger other non-ptsd related things, like sensory overload or going mute. Many women living with ptsd also struggle with ASD and can find talk therapy challenging, so I’m wondering if there is a component of the MAPS research/training that also takes into account neurodiversity in their patients? thank you again tim, have been listening for years!

    1. There is a accomplished researcher who specializes in treating patients with ASD. She has headed up trials treating people with ASD with MDMA and psilocybin. Alicia Danforth. She is an amazing woman. Check out her research (google scholar) and her website here:

      [Moderator: link to Alicia Danforth’s website at aliciadanforth dot com has been removed.]

  10. This is where science, calling and the new science of psychedelics collide to create wondrous life changing opportunities. There is such a focus on ancestral / shamanic paths, wholly valid, but limiting in terms of the training and accessibility to a potential and worthy facilitators, space holders and therapists. There needs to a new academic path, mixing the new science with the ancient lore, but focused around specific entheogens and healing modalities. Let’s start with MDMA, build credibility around that, whilst nourishing and cherishing the more powerful and transformative plant healers. We are tethered to a quick fix society, attention deficient, we need to work within that stream, to change public perception.

  11. What abut Hypnosis or NLP for “non ordinary states of consciousness.” In Erickson hypnosis they use this term frequently.

  12. Great podcast! I’ve never done any psychedelics but I’m planning a trip to Amsterdam in January 2020. Do you have any recommendations to where I should go or a good trip sitter? Do you recommend a retreat or having someone sit with you in a hotel or AirBnB? I want to make sure I’m planning for the best experience. I’m super healthy and have no health, depression or psychological ailments that I’m aware of. It would simply be to experience what I have never experienced. Any recommendations?

  13. Tim, I think there’s a parts-work methodology you should probably know about (if you don’t already). It’s employed by thousands of therapists but it’s not as well known as IFS (Internal Family Systems). And, in my opinion (and that of many others) it’s actually better than IFS (all respect to Richard Schwartz). It’s called Focusing.

    Gene Gendlin, who was a colleague of Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago, developed it. Ann Weiser Cornell is currently its preeminent teacher and has developed it into what’s now called Inner Relationship Focusing. She’s was Gene’s student and has a PhD in Linguistics.

    She developed a facilitative language that is BY FAR the best there is for helping people identify their parts and move into an empathic, curious and non-judgmental relationship with them. This helps people reclaim the life energy that’s bound up in trauma (which is why parts exists in the first place).

    As a trip sitter, you might be interested in it. I really hope that MAPS discovers it.

    Google any of “Focusing,” “Inner Relationship Focusing,” “Ann Weiser Cornell” or “Gene Gendlin.”

    Thanks again for doing that podcast with Marcela!

  14. I used to work in pharmaceutical advertising, and I spent years helping traditional pharma clients create marketing collateral and navigate the regulatory hurdles of the FDA.

    At this point, after having left that world behind to explore my own consciousness through a sincere yoga practice and teaching career, I feel called to marry my corporate skills with my passion for holistic wellness.

    Apart from MAPS, does anyone know any other companies or organizations making strides in the field with whom I should consider seeking employment?

  15. Tim –
    First, thank you for all you are doing to promote the grounded and research based use of psychedelic psychotherapy. I really appreciate it and am hopeful that this work will lead to much healing in the world.
    Second, I write to inquire whether you have taken steps to help those of us in the counselling profession to further our training to be able to offer this sort of therapy. I am a recent graduate with my Masters in Counselling very much interested in this field, however after the high cost of my degree I am unable to afford specialized training in this field. I know that you have been very active in funding research in this field, and I wonder if there is any action being taken to help those, like me, access training to be able to offer this sort of psychotherapy.
    Again, thanks for all you do.
    Peter La Grand, RCC