The title of this article is deceptive. Psychedelics and plant medicine did not only give me a career as a therapist. They gave me an entire life path, and utterly rearranged my worldview in ways that continue to deepen and infuse every aspect of my work and inner life.
Growing up in the affluent hills of Portland, Oregon, drugs were never far away. After embarking on a teenage cannabis odyssey at the age of 15, I quickly graduated to psilocybin mushrooms, which, as most readers will know, grow plentifully in the Pacific Northwest.
Finding them was never the hard part. The hard part, I would learn, was ensuring that the experience was energetically contained, safe, and grounded in some form of ritualistic container - set and setting - fundamental concepts that my adolescent brain regrettably did not yet fully grasp.
I recall one pivotal mushroom journey that I embarked on with a group of friends at the tender age of 16. Having had one or two fantastic experiences previously, I was practically an expert. Discarding the instructions from my friend’s older brother to not take more than half, I, in my newfound psychonautic enthusiasm, simply gobbled the lot.
To describe my stance towards the mushrooms as arrogant would be extremely generous.
My friends followed suit with their own respective bags which contained a large quantity of some of the most beautiful, ominous, closed-cap Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms I have seen to date.
Very rapidly the walls began to ripple. Strange things started to occur that seemed to defy conventional logic. I noticed the personalities of my friends beginning to dissolve, and was suddenly hit with the terrifying realization that I was utterly alone in this otherworldly foray. Through my bemushroomed perception, my comrades had descended into some primitive form of hominid, neither human nor ape. There was no use trying to reason with them.
It was Lord of The Flies on acid. Or rather, psilocybin.
Resolving to simply “sleep this one off,” I too descended. My clothes seemed a distraction from any coherent thoughts, and I began to haphazardly prepare for my ill-conceived slumber. Resigned to my fate, I went down to the basement room, and would not emerge until the mushrooms had had their terrifying, alien way with me.
After all was said and done, I was utterly convinced that an entire year had passed, until the sediment of reality began to settle more deeply into my psyche a few minutes later.
The next morning as I sat on the couch, watching the stitched palm trees bleed their serene, tropical essence into the fabric, I resolved to never again blunder so fantastically into the psychedelic realm. In that moment, I knew that there was a right way to do these things, and a wrong way. And I wanted to find out how to do it right.
Looking back, I can say that I’ve been engaged with psychedelics for half my life. I say this not to bolster my own psychedelic ego (an ironic phenomenon indeed,) but to express the immense debt I owe to psychedelics and to those who have kept the knowledge of these plants and ceremonies alive for milenia.
That impressively botched teenage mushroom trip catalyzed a journey that I am still on today, which has shapeshifted into various forms of academic study, extensive travel, and traditional training in a living tradition of psychedelic healing.
I count myself immensely lucky to have had the ability to engage in such work, to have been trusted with the ceremonies and medicines that were shared with me, and for the ways in which psychedelics continue to guide and support my life. The dimensions of privilege that saturate my story are not lost on me.
Yet it is precisely due to the overwhelming quantity of blessings in my life, and my gratitude for them, that I am able to do what I do each day - a fact which psychedelics continue to remind me every time I choose to “pick up the phone,” and check back in with the ineffable.
After seven years of academic fascination and tracking its elusive paw prints through the annals of psychedelic literature and counter-cultural legend, ayahuasca finally came into my life. Right into my living room, in fact.
I was living in a vibrant community house at the time, a turn-of-the-century mansion on Portland’s historic register filled with a rotating cast of healers, artists, and radical earth stewards. We had the opportunity to host several traditional ayahuasca ceremonies in our decadent, wood-paneled common room - a chance most of us could not pass up.
Exactly one year later, I found myself sleeping in a hammock for three days on a rusty riverboat chugging its way up the Rio Maroñon, one of the meandering, magnificent tributaries of the upper Amazon in northeastern Peru.
A six week immersion into the Shipibo shamanic tradition set my internal compass firmly in the direction of what many Native American cultures call the red road, or el camino rojo - the healing path.
What can only be described as an ayahuasca bootcamp, those were some of the most challenging weeks of my life. Eventually, downing a full cup of the thick, sickly-sweet brew every-other night became a less frightening prospect than consuming the arsenal of plant purgatives our Shipibo maestros threw at us, not to mention the steam baths. The ascetic dieta of unsalted, bland food created a slow burn of caloric-restricted introspection, alternating between ecstasy and torture.
Amongst the frequent visitations of gigantic blue butterflies, tropical rainstorms, and bioluminescent tree spirits, two things dawned on me:
The first was that it was not my place to be pouring cups of this primordial medicine.
As part of the course, we were each expected to facilitate one ceremony during our training. After sitting in the center of the maloka for just one night, I firmly understood the seriousness of the responsibility that such a position entails. Despite the prevalence of self-described “shamans” one can inevitably encounter today, the time and energy required to become a fully trained ayahuasquero could in some ways be compared to a grueling masters and Ph.D program, yet with stakes much higher than student debt.
Instead of being the person at the center of the circle, blowing mapacho smoke and singing to the spirits, I realized that I would rather act as a bridge and intermediary, bringing others to that person, who if you ask me, should likely be indigenous.
The Shipibo maestros I worked with were masters of the ayahuasca realm, and of treating many severe health ailments with their ancestral knowledge of Amazonian forest medicine. What I believe they lacked, however, was an ability to assist their Western pasajeros psychologically integrate the lessons learned from their psychedelic experiences.
Integration is a specific need of modern, Western people precisely because of our lack of a coherent community structures - something my Shipibo teachers still had access to, despite centuries of colonization.
The second was that I came to see the practice of what we call psychotherapy, especially the tradition established by Carl Jung, as the closest thing Euro-American culture has left to a living shamanic tradition.
Like a pot shard discovered in our collective soil over a century ago, this amorphous form of soul work was once a part of some greater vessel that could hold our collective dreams, visions, traumas, values, beliefs, and struggles - the very function of an intact, healthy culture.
Over the course of 30-plus ayahuasca ceremonies, and nearly a decade of travel focused on connecting with indigenous peoples, I came to see psychotherapy as the most efficient and practical way that I could contribute to the process of cultural repair and psychic decolonization that my journeys and mentors had all been guiding me towards.
This is all to say that I am deeply indebted to psychedelics. Like many who become drawn to these strange and elusive substances, I feel what can only be described as a profound desire to serve and support a movement that is miraculously gaining popular approval around their use, both clinical and otherwise.
A core principle which both mythology and psychedelics teach us is that everything which is given must be paid for.
Becoming a depth psychotherapist was the most ethical and efficient way I could walk this camino rojo while also meeting the practical needs that the 21st century demands - a personal crucible that everyone must navigate on their own terms. My work is my way of honoring these gifts and medicines, and of contributing towards a movement that I wholeheartedly believe in.
It may sound strange. I’m still figuring it out myself. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt that after many years of sincere exploration and learning, psychedelics not only gave me a life path and a career. They gave me a mission.
That mission is to help ensure that the psycho-spiritual transformations that psychedelics evoke actually take root for my clients, rippling out through their own work and actions which, like a stream flowing into a river, and a river into the ocean, may subtly contribute to a shift towards what I can only call collective and planetary healing.
It is my way of giving back to the medicines, which ultimately all spring forth from our living, breathing earth.
This often looks like a turning away from an egoic and ethnocentric perspective, which disregards the earth in favor of consumption, and disregards indigenous worldviews in favor of a rational-materialistic, Christianized worldview, and turning towards a perspective that can only be described as a participatory, psychologically vibrant, and a holistically well existence grounded in right relationship.
This is the perspective that now infuses all of my work, both with individual clients, as well as in workshops and courses where I teach about a psychedelic integration methodology grounded in these principles.
Each day, I feel like I am playing catch up with myself and the lessons that psychedelics have been kind enough to grace me with. The amount of work to do is almost overwhelming. And the amount of time is almost running out.
So today and everyday, I say without fear or hesitancy, thank you plant medicine.
And to think that it all started with a bag of mushrooms.
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