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Real or the shadow?

The Cave and Change.

Perhaps one of the most popular allegories in all of philosophy is Plato’s allegory of the cave. Many students and people in general often misunderstand it. I am not going to deconstruct it here.

Most find the allegory fascinating, yet cannot fully get it. (Random I know, yet COVID is at some level like the cave – Stick with me, please).

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that philosophy was a tremendously useful skill that should be practiced by everyone. They thought we could learn to live the best life and die well.

Plato thought of philosophy as a therapy for the soul, and he dared to tackle some of the most profound philosophical problems with his allegory of the cave.

The Cave

In book seven of Plato’s The Republic, he tells us about some people chained in a cave, forced to watch shadows across a stonewall.

The group of prisoners has been living there in chains since their birth. They have never seen the outside world, only shadows of it. They have no knowledge of anything beyond their miserable lives in the cave.

The prisoners are chained facing a wall and can’t turn their heads. There’s a fire behind them that produces some light. Occasionally people pass by that fire with animals and objects or figures that are cast in the wall, and the prisoners can see their shadows.

All that the prisoners know are those shadows. They name them and believe they are real entities. They talk about the shadows with enthusiasm and are fascinated by them, thinking that if you pay attention, you can succeed in life.

One day, a prisoner manages to free himself from the chains and step outside the cave to see the outer world. At first, the sun burns his eyes, but then they adjust, and he finds everything so colorful, exciting, and full of life. He sees the real forms of the things he knew as shadows, like rabbits, birds, flowers, people, objects, he even sees the sky and stars.

“Previously, he had been looking only at phantoms; now, he is nearer to the true nature of being.” – Plato

People explain to him that everything he sees is real, and the shadows are just mere reflections. Although he cannot understand this at first, he then adjusts and sees how the sun is responsible for light and producing the shadows.

The prisoner gets back to the cave and tells everyone what he had just witnessed, but no one believes him. His eyes had adjusted to the sun, and now he can’t see the shadows clearly as he did before. They tell him he’s crazy, and violently resist while he tries to free them.

Psychedelic Experiences can feel like seeing the world for the first time.

People are comfortable in their ignorance and hostile to anyone who tries to free them from it. The prisoners plotted and killed the one who escaped and went back to help them, just like the Athenians sentenced Socrates to death for trying to enlighten them.

This is an allegory of the life of all enlightened and wise people who get rejected by ignorance when they try to enlighten others.

For Plato, most of us live like the prisoners in the cave. The masses are stubborn and ignorant and dedicate their lives to pursue shadows instead of the real thing. The shadows can be interpreted as status, wealth, among other things, as opposed to wisdom and knowledge.

We don’t live in a Cave.

As the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are you taking care of your "well-being"?

Have you had any of these questions arise lately? Do you find yourself over-giving, overdoing, feeling frequently depleted by a various amount of demands upon you despite your best efforts to create a balanced life? Do you long for deeper, more authentic connection with others? Do you sometimes feel depleted, alone, unsupported, and unable to bring forth the fullness of the contributions you know you must make, despite having great family and friends in your life? Do you feel excited when you break old patterns that no longer serve you but confused in the same breath when you get knocked back into the same patterns? Are you deeply disturbed by the state of the world, but feel powerless to tackle such huge problems and pain when you have not entirely unraveled your own?

Given the current world we are living in, you may constantly be drifting from one thing to another.

It is important, now more than ever to remain alert to your "well-being". And fucking slow down.

So, what then is the solution to this problem? Nurturing healing through curiosity and experiences.

Just like the prisoner who escaped the cave finding a curiosity in the experience of being out in the world gave them perspective.

Shifting your perspective and being open to new experiences like psychedelic therapy, Breathwork, hypnosis or even a morning meditation can spark healing.

Try this. The importance of some tips and ‘tricks’ to guide you through these unprecedented times is always helpful.

1. Notice when you feel like your living on autopilot. I encourage you to pivot to the present moment. Find your breath, look at your hand, and bring your attention to your five senses, taste, touch, feel, sound, and smell. Be curious.

2. Commit to a morning ritual, afternoon pause, and evening reflection. I am a broken record around this idea. It literally can take as short as 5 minutes all together and as long as you want. Make it experiential, light a candle in the morning and set your intention for the day. As the mid afternoon comes and goes…pause, take a breath or splash some water on your face and feel the pause. And in the evening rather than binge a show, get lost in social media apps reflect on your day rather than other people’s lives. Take stock in what your grateful for, what you are looking forward to and what was challenging about the day.

3. Don’t judge the stories before you try the experience. While facing the story judgment only clouds the healing. Get out of your head and experience, be curious of the body, it’s about expressing it through different exercises and expressions of healing that maybe new and lead to transformation.

It is no secret today that the world is undergoing a wave of unmatched disruption. Let’s not revert back to “The Cave”. This wave can either disintegrate your very being or propel you to great heights of immeasurable growth. Either way, we must pay keen attention to its effects.

"Well-being" is particularly important, when one lives and works in a fragmented world, where the professional is severed from the heart, mind, and body. You deeply need some practices (rituals) to enable you reclaim and retain your wholeness.

Dr. Ryan Westrum is a clinical psychologist and licensed marriage family therapist that specializes in healing spiritual emergency, psychedelic experiences and all things experiential. Contact Ryan at or


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