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.

#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