A Rare Look at the Psychedelic Underground | Rachel Harris, PhD

Rachel Harris

Psychedelics have become a popular topic of conversation with people not just exploring consciousness and deepening relationships, but also those researching and exploring how these different substances might impact everything from anxiety and depression to PTSD and beyond. Still there is so much hype out there. We’ve talked to some leading researchers in the past, like Adam Gazalley at UCSF, and actually, we’ll have an episode soon with a leading voice from the practitioner and science-based side who is also helping to push forward policy and legislation. But, today, we’re taking a look at another side of this world, what’s become known as the psychedelic underground. 

My guest today is Rachel Harris, PhD, author of the book Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground. Rachel is a psychologist who spent over 40 years in private practice and 10 more in academia publishing research studies. But a powerful ayahuasca journey in 2005 set her on an entirely new course, one that led her to intimately understand the world of psychedelic guides and shamanic traditions.

In our conversation, Rachel shares remarkable stories from her own experiences as well as the women elders she interviewed who have been guiding others on psychedelic journeys for decades. She pulls back the veil on the intuitive, embodied ways these guides work somatically with people’s energy fields during ceremonies. We explore the critical role of the shaman in holding the sacred container. And Rachel offers wise and also cautionary advice for anyone curious about exploring this domain ethically and safely.

You can find Rachel at: WebsiteEpisode Transcript

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photo credit: Mary Fennell


Episode Transcript:

Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:00:00] I was just ecstatic. I mean, it was wonderful. As soon as I got back to civilization, I emailed all my friends. I said, you know, we have to come back down here. We all have to come. They’re all experienced with psychedelics. But I said, but we’re all getting old. This was my sales pitch to my friends. I said, my joints have been lubricated, you know, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. I said, this is the fountain of youth. I felt so much more alive and flexible and certainly physically more alive and flexible. But also, I didn’t realize that there was a heaviness that I was holding with my father’s death and that this lightened and opened it in a way that has stayed with me. This is almost 20 years ago. This happened and it’s very alive in me, and it shifted my whole relationship to death and dying.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:49] So psychedelics have become a popular topic of conversation with people, not just exploring consciousness and deepening relationships, but also those researching and exploring how these different substances might impact everything from anxiety to depression to PTSD and beyond. Still, there is so much hype out there. We’ve talked to some leading researchers in the past, like Adam Gazzaley at UCSF, and actually we have an episode in the works with a leading voice from the practitioner side and the science-based side who’s helping push forward policy and legislation. But today, we’re taking a look at another side of this world, what’s become known as the psychedelic underground. So my guest today is Rachel Harris, PhD, author of the book Swimming in the Sacred Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground. Now, Rachel is a psychologist who spent over 40 years in private practice and ten more in academia, publishing research studies. But this powerful ayahuasca journey in 2005, it set her on an entirely different course, one that led her to intimately understand the world of psychedelic guides and shamanic traditions, and brought her back to some of the work that she had done in Esalen all the way back in the 60s and 70s. Now, in our conversation, Rachel shares just remarkable stories from her own experiences, as well as stories from the women elders that she interviewed who had been guiding others on the psychedelic journeys for decades. She pulls back the veil on the intuitive, embodied ways that these guides work somatically with people’s energy fields during ceremonies, and we explore the critical role of the shaman or guide in holding this sacred container. And Rachel offers wise and also cautionary advice for anyone curious about exploring this domain ethically and safely. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:54] And I’m excited to dive in with you, especially because we you know, I have spoken to folks, you know, Michael Pollan when his book came out and then not too long ago, Adam Gazzaley, who’s running a lab, um, researching psychedelics along with Robin Carhart, now at UCSF.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:03:08] Oh yeah, Wow.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:08] So there’s the science side of it, but you represent a different a different approach, a different way in that I’m deeply interested in you private practice for from what I understand, over three decades as a psychologist, spent a solid decade or so also researching, published over 40 studies. And then this interesting thing happens. I think it was around 2005. You find yourself in Costa Rica at a retreat, and it seems like that was an inciting incident for a really powerful change in direction. So I’d love you to take me there.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:03:44] Yes, in 2005. I’m trying to think, how old was I? I must have been about 60. 60, because I’m very old now, and I was just looking for a vacation. So I went to this retreat center where I figured it would be quiet and contemplative and nobody would bother me. And the day before, I was getting ready to leave. Well, well, to really explain it, I was living in new Jersey at the time and it was February. I wanted to go to a beach. I mean, it explains itself. And the organizer says, do you want to be in the ceremony? And I say, what ceremony? I mean, I really didn’t have a clue. I didn’t really look at the brochure even. And when I did, I didn’t recognize the names as Jeremy Narby. I mean, of course I would recognize the name now, but I didn’t then. And so I asked what kind of retreat? And she said, an ayahuasca retreat. And I happened to have a book on ayahuasca because I, like many psychologists, I buy books and then I don’t read them. Many people, I should say I it was a great cover. And so I read the book in 24 hours and I said, yes, I’ll go to the I’ll do the ceremony. And so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. I mean, it was totally a surprise to me that I ended up there, but I had a history of psychedelic use in my 20s in California during the late 60s, so I didn’t come to it naive. And at that time I was at a life change. My daughter was finishing her graduate school education. I was, you know, she was launched pretty much, and I was ready. And, I mean, I literally picked up the life I left in my 20s and continued on. So for me, it was sort of a coming full circle. It wasn’t so much as a, oh my God, this is totally new, but freedom at that stage of my life and a full circle.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:45] So I want to dive a little bit more into what unfolds during that experience. But before, let’s fill in, let’s go a little bit back in time and fill in that gap, because as you mentioned in your 20s, you did have experience in this world. But I would imagine back then it was a very different context and probably for a very different intention, if there was an intention at all.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:06:04] Well, absolutely. There was an intention and I wouldn’t even go to a rock concert under any influence. I so it was never that kind of recreational it would be. I was telling one of the, one of the women I know who’s been at this for 40 or 50 years, and she hung out with a Grateful Dead. I mean, she’s good friends with a Grateful Dead. And I said, you know, if I went to a rock concert, I’d be one of those people who said, quiet on stage, keep it down. I mean, I’m just not well suited for crowds and noise. And so, you know, I was mostly out in nature and for spiritual purposes. So I tended to be very serious anyway. So it was not really ever recreational, but we didn’t understand the therapeutic potential back there. We did know it was spiritual but not the therapeutic potential. And then to have well, I’m jumping ahead. But you know, as a psychologist then to, you know, all these years later to have the validity of the psychological value shown. I mean, it’s terrifically exciting for me as a psychologist.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:11] Yeah, I would imagine so it was I’m curious also then, was that earlier experience part of what motivated you to then go into the field of psychology, even though it wasn’t psychedelic-oriented in the early days.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:07:24] No, no, it was my neurotic family that motivated me. I mean, this is true for most therapists, whether they admit it or not. So that, you know, I really didn’t have a lot of choice. So that was. 


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:34] Got it. Got it.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:07:35] Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:35] So you had that early exposure. Then you move into this field, you spend a chunk of time in it and and then we move back into Costa Rica where you say yes to the ceremony.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:07:44] Well, the truth is, you know, I was a householder for like 20-some years. I had a kid. And, you know, I didn’t have freedom and opportunity to go do these other things.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:53] What I’m curious about that freedom and opportunity. What was in your mind? And you described yourself as a householder, which for those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, I’m familiar with it through Buddhism, where they’re sort of like these two paths, the monastic path in the household, their path. You know, this is somebody who basically chooses to be in the world. You’re living your life, you’re doing all the stuff regular people do every day.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:08:12] Driving the kid to school every day. I mean, right.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:15] And doing ayahuasca or psychedelics is probably not the type of thing you’re going to do. Like on a Wednesday at 2:00.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:08:21] Yeah, exactly. And then go pick up the kid. No, it’s not going to happen. No, no.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:25] So you get to this point though where you described, you know, your daughter’s launched into the world, you’re at this retreat, you’re escaping the February New Jersey. And as a long-time New Yorker, before I moved to the mountains, and nobody wants to be in like, New York or New Jersey in February. It’s just the way it is in February. Yeah. And when you actually drop into that ceremony for the first time in 2005. Talk to me a little bit about what that experience is like.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:08:50] You know, what I remember so clearly is I drank this terrible-tasting liquid, and I’m slightly terrified. You know, I’m sitting there and so I start to talk to myself inside, you know, there’s no effect of the medicine, but I’m just saying, you know, how it’s like a pep talk. You know how to do this. You’ve been there before. You’ll be fine. And then, of course, you know, the world explodes. I mean, within half an hour. But there’s there’s apps. You know, even now when I go into a ceremony, I have an anxiety about it. These are not easy ceremonies. So it takes some courage and and calming myself down. Yeah, I remember that. And then I had my intention was to go back to the time when my father was dying. I had it was about 6 or 7 years before, and I had brought him home to for hospice care at home. And he was going to die at my house. And, you know, the whole house. The energy in the house changes when someone’s dying. It’s a remarkable experience. And at the point where my father was no longer talking, but he he was maybe 2 or 3 days before he died. Actually, I’m walking through the house and all of a sudden I realize I’m shooting through the ceiling, the roof. I’m, you know, I’m going. This is with no drugs of any sort. It’s only my father’s dying that’s happening. And I got scared and I brought myself down. I sat down in a chair and I opened my eyes to look around.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:10:33] Nobody’s in the room with me. And you know, I saw the walls. The only other time I’ve seen this is during an earthquake where the walls buckle, they move. They’re like a ribbon that’s waving. And so, of course, I thought, well, I’m not on a psychedelic. What the hell is this? And I’m trying to kind of get myself oriented and breathing and and I realized I was so scared because I thought I was dying. I was going with my father and that I wouldn’t be able to come back. And that really scared me, you know, quickly followed by, did I abandon him? What did I miss? What was this? So then I had all I could manage with just managing the family. And my father’s dying in the house and on and on. And then as soon as everything calmed down, a month or so later, I began asking all my spiritual friends what happened? And you know, I asked the wrong group of people, you know, who I should have. And I have very sophisticated spiritual friends. I mean, I could brag about how impressive they are, and I love them dearly, and nobody was any help. If I had asked a career nurse, someone who’d been a nurse a long time, she would have known because it’s nurses who are sitting at the bedside when somebody dies and they’ve experienced this. And what I eventually found my way to was, oh, I should have written down his name. You know, the doctor who did all the near death, the near death experience.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:12:04] Oh, no, don’t tell me you’re not going to remember his name also. Well, he has a book on shared. The term is shared death experience. And it’s the nurses who really know this. So if you ask any, you know, the nurses know a lot that nobody listens to as usual. And, um, they’ve sat at bedsides holding hand and they know that they have traveled with the person and they’ve been there. They’ve done that. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. So back to the first ayahuasca journey is I wanted to go back to that moment and complete it, and I did. That’s what’s amazing to me. You know, you don’t you don’t always get what your intent. I mean, you almost never get what your intention is. And I really did go back to that moment and I again zoomed out of my body up, up through now a thatched roof. You know, I’m in the jungle and into this starry void. I mean, the dark, dark night with little pinpoints of stars. And of course, then I just lost awareness of myself as a separate being. But it was this wonderful cosmic merging and also even more personally, I had a replay of my last conversation with my father, which is the I love you, I love, you know, but it was just so wonderful. So that was just a revelation for me that changed everything about that experience and how I saw life and death.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:37] So you go there expecting to escape the new Jersey winter. Maybe. Maybe read a book and, like, dip your toes in the water and.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:13:46] I get a cosmic experience.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:48] You come back having soared through the universe and reconnected and, like, completed that experience with your dad. Really?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:13:54] Yeah. And then, you know, I was sitting with I was having this is this is just a couple of years ago. So it’s like 20 years later almost. I’m sitting with a friend who happens to be and really initiated indigenous, trained by an indigenous shaman. I mean, this is the real deal. He happens to be Western, but he was the son of missionaries, and so he grew up in an indigenous village for 15 years of his life. And his godfather was the village shaman, and his godfather trained him. And this is like the real deal. And we’re and we’re just having lunch. And he said something about how he sang to this woman who was dying. And he said he sang her through the night sky, the starry sky. I mean, he’s very eloquent and poetic and I’m like. And I’m sitting there and I’m like, I went there. I know that that’s exactly where I went. I know that, and I felt like I this is really a lesson in dying. I mean, you know, I have another friend who says dying is the final exam, so I don’t know how I’ll how I’ll do, but at least I have a real vision of, of that traveling that you go traveling and there’s and that you enter the cosmos. I mean, it was really beautiful and gorgeous and and some of the near-death experience talks about that, that it’s like a, a darkness with pinpricks of light.


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:21] So when you have this experience and you finally touch down, I just for those who haven’t had any sort of psychedelic experience and I assume most people haven’t, you know this. We’re not talking about 20 or 30 minutes generally, especially with ayahuasca. You know, this is this is a long this is, you know, like six, eight, ten hours.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:15:38] Well, it’s it’s a good six hours, but it’s you’re done around 3 or 4 in the morning, right?


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:43] Um, when you emerge from that and you sort of like you’re the next morning arises, what’s going on in your mind?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:15:50] I was just ecstatic. I mean, it was wonderful. And I felt like, this is as soon as I got back to civilization, I emailed all my friends. I said, you know, we have to come back down here. We all have to come. They’re all experienced with psychedelics. But I said, but we’re all getting old. And I said, this was my sales pitch to my friends. I said, my joints have been lubricated. You know, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. I said, this is the fountain of youth. I felt so much more alive and flexible and certainly physically more alive and flexible. But also, I didn’t realize that there was a heaviness that I was holding with my father’s death, and that this lightened and opened it in a way that has stayed with me. This is almost 20 years ago. This happened and it’s very alive in me, and it shifted my whole relationship to death and dying.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:48] Mhm. I mean, it’s interesting you you mentioned that, you know, one of on the research side, some of the early research that I think came out of Johns Hopkins was with folks who were diagnosed with terminal cancer and using psilocybin and with one, one journey, what the research was showing that so much of this sort of like the existential angst, that just profound anxiety and nerve-wracking fear of the end was either gone entirely or greatly ameliorated.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:17:17] Yes, yes. At NYU, you know, they’ve done a lot of research. So they had atheistic New Yorkers. I don’t know how to say this anyway. And this one woman said, I’m still an atheist, but I was held in the loving arms of God. I mean, that’s that’s I don’t know how else to explain it. That’s what she said. Yeah, it’s, I mean, and the term they used for the people who are dying is that they suffer with I think it’s the right term is demoralization that they’re it’s not just depression, but it’s sort of a loss of meaning and a giving up. I mean, it’s it’s a difficult place. So they’re suffering on top of the actual dying. And after this experience, they are more available and open to their loved ones to have those important conversations. And, you know, one example was this man who was dying was in the hospital. And everybody, all the nurses and doctors always wanted to be in his room because it was sort of so filled with light. I mean, something happens and we don’t really have a lot of ways to talk about what this is, but it happens and it lasts more than just the ceremony.


Jonathan Fields: [00:18:29] Mhm. So you come back, you tell all of your friends we’ve got to do this. Um, but beyond that this also really becomes a powerful inciting incident for you to say I’ve been in practice for 30-plus years, but there’s something about this which is profoundly different. And I want to go deeper.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:18:47] Yeah. Well, you know, the most normal thing about me as a psychologist was the ten years in a research office at a medical school. That was very normal. But everything I learned about therapy, I learned during the years that I lived at Esalen Institute in the 60s. So that’s very different from an academic training. And honestly, I got into the research to avoid the academic training in therapy because I because I had a foundation already at Esalen and where I worked with all the leading therapists and human potential people during the 60s. So I really didn’t want to work with academics in psychotherapy. So that’s what got me into the research. I was mostly interested in my own healing, and I felt this was a real opportunity for my own healing. And the detail was this the second year I went back when I brought all my friends, I had a really bad trip. I mean, I looked so bad the next morning that the shaman and the shaman’s helpers, they all came over to do energy work on me. I had a really bad night. I looked awful, and I got stuck in childhood trauma, and I can’t say that they really got me out of it. I mean, I came home with this, with this not being okay, I mean, I, I functioned, but I really didn’t feel okay.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:20:13] So I did a whole bunch of things and everything sort of helped a little. I had a therapist. The acupuncturist helped a lot. I got some bodywork, but what really made the difference was a phone call. Now, this sounds really crazy. This was a friend of mine who’d been studying shamanism and working with energy, and she turned out to be very gifted. And she’s also a gifted therapist. But for me, she’s a friend, and she did some energetic work over the phone with me. This is after, I don’t know, 6 or 7 months of not feeling okay, feeling like a, you know, I felt during the ceremony that I was attacked by, you know, energy-eating bugs. And I felt like they were still in me. And she did an energetic intervention that got these sort of energy-eating bugs out of my system, out of my energy field, and I felt cleared. This is not something you learn in graduate school. We don’t really know how to explain this, but that was a really tough year after that. So I’m very sensitive and aware of people can have bad trips that are good, bad trips that you learn something from. You can also have crappy bad trips that there’s a real risk in, a danger that you get stuck in something and there is a risk.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:21:34] With all the psychedelics, it’s a small percentage, but some people don’t come back okay, and they have different kinds of symptoms. This was my version, these sort of energy-eating bugs, you know, just a crazy kind of thing. But I persevered, I didn’t, and so I continued another year or two of doing ceremonies. And during one ceremony, I heard a voice that said, do the research. And I felt like I’m a good soldier. I’m going to follow my instructions. Somehow, this plant teacher from the ayahuasca medicine, I mean, I don’t know how to talk about this as a Westerner. Somehow this plant teacher, grandmother ayahuasca told me to do the research, didn’t give me any more instructions, but knew that I could conduct a real research study that I had the skills and and the connections and the knowledge to do the whole thing. And so, you know, like a good soldier, I sort of said, yes, ma’am. And then I called up my old research mentor’s mentor. So my research mentor had died young, but her mentor was a nationally known director of research for the VA hospital for the American Psychiatric Association. He was a big deal and we had always wanted to do some work together. We never got funded, so we never did a project together. So now he’s 85 years old and I’m 60 something, and I call him up and I say, grandmother.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:23:13] Ayahuasca told me to do the research. You know, I’m just. And there’s a pause, you know, on the other end of the phone. And then he says, okay. And we really did this project together. And it was wonderful for both of us. I mean, we both had a great time. And as we’re writing it up, it was published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. And I said to him, I said to my co-authors, Lee Gorell, he’s passed on now. He died in his early 90s just last year. But I said to him, you know, there’s really a third author here that we’re not giving credit to. And he there’s again, a pause. And then he laughed. And it was grandmother ayahuasca. I mean, while we’re doing this project, it was a three-year project. Someone at one point asked if it was my dissertation, and I said, no, I did that 20 years ago. She gave me a message so that we looked at the statistical analysis of the of the data in a different way, and we changed our interpretation slightly. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was a different slant on the statistical analysis. So I mean, she really was a third author. Yeah, it was really interesting.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:26] So what was the outcome of that study? What did it show?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:24:29] Well, lo and behold, people feel better about themselves. They feel more positive emotions. So another way of saying that is they’re less depressed and their health behaviors improve. Which therapy fails at? You know, therapy does not help people to eat healthier or exercise. We fail at that. That’s why there are coaches, because the therapist can’t. You know, you can talk to me for years about your mother. You might not exercise, right? I mean, we’re all about insight. It’s very hard for therapists to change behavior. I mean, the behaviors say we do, but we don’t really succeed. These people change. Many of them became vegetarians. I mean, they really changed their health behaviors and their ontology changed also the way they understand the world, their philosophy. So they had these encounters with another world. And so they became less materialistic and more open to other realms, other beings. The death is not the end. I mean, they shifted in their relationship to death and dying. These were big philosophical shifts that happened.


Jonathan Fields: [00:25:45] Yeah, I mean it’s really powerful.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:25:47] The caveat is that, um, this was a very uncontrolled study, and we still don’t know how to do a controlled study, because even the psilocybin and MDMA studies have trouble doing controlled studies, because within 30 minutes, everybody knows who got the experimental drug and who got the niacin or, you know, whatever. You know, everyone knows the data collectors, the therapists, the patients, the subjects, everyone knows. And also, I just looked at people. The criteria was, if you’ve had one ayahuasca experience in North America, I wanted to beginning to open up for North Americans, and I wanted what did they experience in Northam, in the modern world with this ancient medicine? But what did they drink? Who knows? Right. Who was the shaman or who led the ceremony? God knows.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:41] Yeah, so many variables.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:26:42] There just aren’t that many authentic, indigenously trained shamans around. And so much of the way the indigenous people understand this medicine is it is through the shaman that the healing that the medicine enters into the energy field. The shaman brings the medicine and the plant teachers through their singing.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:06] That person really becomes a conduit to a certain extent, and also critically important in the nature of the experience and what emerges from it. I want to go deeper into that with you, because this is a lot of what you write about, actually in the newer book. But there is a question that’s lingering in my mind that I want to ask you, and it’s a question that I’ve asked a number of people over the years. I had a friend who, over probably about 15 years or so, has done somewhere around 100 ayahuasca journeys, and I said, it must have just been incredible for you to keep going back. The benefit must have been so powerful. And she said, no, actually, like the first 30 or 35 were the darkest, most horrific experiences in my life. And my mind was saying, why would you go back after the first one? So I guess my curiosity with you is you have that incredible first experience. You go back the next year and you have a very dark experience that stays with you for months and months and months after what was happening inside of you that says, But I’m not done. You know, like there’s something here that I still need to go back to.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:28:07] Because I intuitively knew it was healing. I got stuck in that healing process, and that wasn’t helpful. But I really knew that there was great healing potential in this medicine. And I still know that. And I don’t have good experiences, I still don’t. My dear friend, the shaman I work with, I mean, he teases me and he says, I can’t believe you come back. So do the same thing you’re saying. And it’s some of it is because those weeks after I call them the golden hours and days and weeks, and now we have, you know, solid, hard data showing that the serotonin is elevated for a good three weeks. So people do feel better physically and emotionally. But it was a strong intuitive sense and a connection to the medicine, so that I felt a real connection to the spirit of the plant, which is totally outside my sense of what reality is. You know, I I’m not even much of a gardener. But that connection got made really strongly, and that that connection kept me going back, even though I’m miserable for that night. I know I’ll feel better later.


Jonathan Fields: [00:29:22] And I guess a part of that also is what happens after it. You know, you described that first experience where you were sort of in this really tough place until you reached out to this one friend who did some work with you and was very quickly able to to help you sort of translate that into something profoundly different. You mentioned also a number of times now that the role of the shaman or I think more broadly, people might consider that the guide in these types of experiences and then you this is an area you really gone deep into, both in terms of how do I understand what is the role of this person, what are the ethics around it, and then becoming that person yourself. So take me into this because I’m fascinated by the role of the Psychedelic Guide and the experience.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:30:06] Yeah, and now you’re really referencing the swimming in the Sacred book. Yeah, because I had been so connected at Esalen. I lived there for a couple of years in the late 60s, early 70s. I knew a lot of the people that these women trained with. So I was able they were willing to talk to me. It’s a group of women. I only wanted to talk to women who had been guiding people for at least 20 years, and most of them for 30, 40 years. These are really the women elders, and they know more about working with the full panoply of psychedelic medicines. Then, you know, in the Western world, then the researchers, you know, whenever I see one of the researchers, I say, and so why didn’t you research team contact these women, the underground guys. And they they they didn’t. I mean, it makes perfect sense. The research teams are mostly men. And these they didn’t contact the women. Now they’re men working underground too. But, you know, the research teams did not talk to the people who knew the most about how to work with these medicines in the modern world. So they’d been doing it for 30 or 40 years. They’d seen everything, they’d done everything. And I’m the first person they talked to that they really opened up. And it’s not a how to book, but it’s about who are they and what is it like to be a guide, and what did they have to do to learn how to do that work? And also, why did they risk so much? I mean, you know, had they been arrested in the 60s or 70s, they would still be in jail. They were giving illegal drugs to people. And what they say is, I experienced so much healing from these medicines that I wanted to help others, and that’s really their experience and their position. I took that risk so I could help others. Mhm. But there’s a difference between the Western guides and indigenously trained shaman.


Jonathan Fields: [00:32:09] Yeah. Tell me more about that.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:32:10] Yeah. So I have a good friend who’s a Jungian analyst. So this is already a PhD and then six, seven years of analytical training. I mean, I didn’t do this. This is what he did in Zurich. He he commuted from California to Zurich, Switzerland to get this six, seven years of training in his own Jungian analysis. It’s like no. And then he goes to the jungle and now he’s in his seventh year with Shipibo Shaman. So I’ve been watching him go through this whole process of training, and he’s spending more and more time. And also he meets with a shaman weekly on zoom. And it’s a class. It’s an overt teaching, and he’s being taught how to work with this energy. And I’ve said to him recently, I don’t think I really can understand much more of what you’re doing. You’ve entered a new realm of working with energy that it’s beyond me. It’s really quite something. And it requires faith and discipline and dedication. I mean, it’s really quite a journey. So here’s my contrast. I was talking with a cognitive psychologist, working with functional MRIs and that sort of thing, and he’s doing his postdoc, and it’s a big academic research center with psychedelics. And I asked him, who’s the consultant? You know, helping the the people doing this, guiding and sitting. He said, oh, we have a guy who spent a lot of time in Peru.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:33:50] He goes back and forth a lot. Well, he didn’t even know that. That’s not real training. And I said, yeah, I have a friend who’s doing he’s been doing this for seven years. This is what training looks like. You know, he just. We don’t know. We don’t have a value in this culture on apprenticeships. But this is how people learn. And they learn by sitting next to the shaman in ceremony and drinking. They’re both drinking, of course, because the traditional shaman drink. And, you know, the apprentice says, well, I see this. And the shaman says, no, look over there, you know, into the patient. I see a dragon in their chest. No, no, look at the pelvis. You know, it looks somewhere else. Or look in their head and see that image so that they’re getting confirmation of what they’re seeing. They’re being guided in the moment, in the ceremony sitting. What I say is at the elbow. This is what how an apprentice learns. You’re right at the elbow. And that goes on for a good couple of years after a lot of your own work on yourself. It’s a real dedication and not many people are going to do it. And, you know, these women I interviewed, they didn’t become indigenous shaman, but they trained with the leaders in the field with Stan Groff and Ralph Metzner, and I refer people to the Secret Chief.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:35:22] It’s a book. It’s actually free on the maps website. It’s an interview with Leo Zeth. He was a Jungian-oriented therapist in San Francisco in the 50s, and he was retiring. And then he discovered, I think MDMA was was just it was just a different chemical combination. It was MDA and it was so helpful to him that he then started to work. He he reopened his practice to work with patients, and he trained a number of the people who I interviewed. So you can see their lineage goes way back. And that book, The Secret Chief Revealed, is a really interesting book because it’s based on interviews with him, with this man who really worked with thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area. So it’s it’s really important. Yeah, that’s one book I recommend. And it’s a very Western approach because it’s MDMA and psilocybin and LSD. And then the book that really talks about what shaman do is Jeremy Nabi’s Plant Teachers, where he interviews a curandero, an indigenous shaman who works with medicines with different plants. He talks about the relationship with the plants and that that’s part of where the energy and healing comes from. So you get a whole different perspective.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:46] And we’ll be right back. After a word from our sponsors. You mentioned that when you want to go out and interview and speak with all of these guides that you focus largely on women, is that who was largely the carrier of these lineages of this knowledge?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:37:05] No, no. They’re wonderful men also doing underground work. Here’s the real truth. I just didn’t want to listen to men. I’d done enough of that. And the women there doubly silenced their silenced as women. And then they’re silenced because they’re doing illegal work. And of course, I’ve seen and felt enough of that in my own life, professionally and personally. And so I wanted them to have a voice.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:37:36] Yeah. The men, underground men. I’ve talked to them as well, and they are equally amazing. I just didn’t want to spend a couple of years listening to men specifically.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:47] As you had these conversations. Were there surprises? Were there things that were coming out where you said I never would have imagined?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:37:55] Yeah, yeah, a couple of things. One is I just assumed they were therapists and that was totally wrong. They’re more like, um, high priestesses. They’re not therapists, and they’re not even particularly sophisticated therapeutically. So they are not doing therapy. They want to know if you come in to do work with them. They want to know, do you have a therapist? Their job is to sit and go with you, not to do the therapy. And it’s a whole different practice than what the research teams are doing. The research teams are doing a couple of dose sessions, you know, journeys with some preparation therapy sessions and some integration sessions, maybe three, maybe four. But the whole thing happens within a couple of months. These women are working. This is in vivo, you know, and this is what real life is. They’re working with people who come back maybe in six months or once a year. Maybe they bring their families. I have sat in ayahuasca ceremonies with three generations of a family, and it’s wonderful. It’s not my family, but it’s just wonderful to be with three generations, you know, it’s just. And so these medicines are used to do healing. That’s in a much bigger way. I mean, one of the examples I give is Albert Hoffman, who who synthesized LSD. He did an LSD session once a year until age 96, and then he died around 104. So it’s kind of a way of cleaning you out and getting a new perspective and keeping current with your own psyche. And so that’s how these medicines are used in real life by people. And yes, maybe for healing, maybe to handle a tendency toward depression or something like that, but to keep you on track psychologically and spiritually. So it’s sort of a cleaning out regular journey.


Jonathan Fields: [00:40:02] Mhm. Yeah. It’s almost like to keep a channel open. Yeah. To reopen it. Yeah. Which you know, which you know goes back to, you know the famous conversations with the Beatles in the 60s when they were, you know, deep into the world of psychedelics and a lot of musicians, I guess, you know, from the 60s and 70s where like the primary, the quote use case was they wanted to expand consciousness to become deeper, more expansive, better artists, you know, to be connected to that source of creative energy and muse. It’s interesting sort of the different motivations or intentions of folks when they start to explore this work. Yeah.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:40:37] Well, during the early 60s it was engineers in and around Stanford. So and then there’s the book What the Dormouse Said that talks about, you know, the really the birth of computers and how all the early engineers had all been tripping. And it talks about the group, you know, who came out of Berkeley.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:01] One of the things that I know is often a part of this experience, and you write about this also, is this notion of an embodied experience of somatic sensing, I think, is the phrasing.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:41:11] Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:12] And how so much of what we move through in our lives, whether it’s deep and profound emotions sometimes leading to little T or capital T trauma, it’s not just lodged in our minds and our brains, it ends up in our bodies. You know? Bessel van der Kolk has like really gone deep into the embodiment of trauma also, and I think brought it to more of a sort of a therapeutic mindset. Talk to me about the experience of, of psychedelics or ayahuasca, this type of experience or therapy really in the process of somatic sensing, somatic releasing and how this type of medicine, this type of journey, this type of experience relates to that process.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:41:53] Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think the women I interviewed, I mentioned before that they sort of go with you on your journey. They know the territory so well. They can kind of sense where you are. That’s very much what they feel in their bones. I mean, here’s what one woman said. She’s been sitting with people for 40 years. She said, when I see someone sort of contracting, mind you, they’re under a blanket with Eyeshades and, you know, you don’t get to see much. But she’s sensing that the person is sort of getting a little rigid and contracting. She said. Then I’ll take a deep breath to open up more space for them. Now that’s a wonderful statement of somatic sensing. And and you get a sense of these are not two separate individuals. These are, yes, two people. But in sharing an energetic field so that they’re connected at all kinds of levels, subtle energy levels, breathing space, somatically, I mean, there are all kinds of ways that they’re in a shared space together. And I think strongly that someone doing this guiding work has to have, I don’t know a good way to say this, but they have to be so experienced with these medicines that they know how to intuit themselves into your journey and know where you are with it, and not be afraid. So what I’m really saying is, if you want to be a guide, you really have to go out and get a lot of illegal experience. And I don’t know how to say that in a more professional way.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:43:28] I mean, that’s what’s required. And it all dosages. So these women are like spiritual warriors. They have done everything at every dosage. I just want to point out I am not like that. I’m very cautious. I’m scared. They are very brave and they will give most anything a shot. And I’m not like that. I’m much more cautious than careful. And I’ve talked to a lot of people where they’ve been desperate with whatever they’re suffering with, whether it’s depression or trauma or whatever. And so they tell me they did an ayahuasca ceremony and I asked them, had you done psychedelics before? No, I’d never done any. So they had no idea of psychedelics. And they go and start with ayahuasca, which is one of the biggest journeys you can and often the most challenging. And I marvel at how brave they are, and it’s also how desperate they are. The other thing there’s a different way of knowing with interviewing these women, they’re not. Yes a few. One particularly was an academic, but most of them weren’t. And they have a very intuitive sense of knowing that they know it in their bones. Even one of the women, for instance, who had a master’s in psychology, she could have been a licensed therapist, but she chose to work with medicines and and on journeys, and she talked about just an inner way of knowing. And that’s a different way of knowing than when you come out of an academic program.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:04] I mean, it’s interesting also because part of what you’re it sounds like and tell me if I’m getting this, this right, or even remotely is this notion of there’s an intuitive knowing which comes from the experience of oneness, for lack of a better word of being able to actually feel and participate and be a part of something bigger.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:45:25] It’s not just the oneness, it is an intuitive way of knowing that comes from experience. But some of the experiences could be bad trips. So it’s not just from oneness, it’s about knowing the territory and traveling to different realms. I mean, if you do ketamine, that’s a different realm from MDMA. The medicines all have different worlds, sort of that they open you up to, and you’re not always guaranteed. I did an MDMA journey and I went to ayahuasca space, almost like I had a pathway to. And so I went to because I thought, oh, this is at last, this is going to be fun. Well, no it wasn’t. It was all about dying. Just like the ayahuasca trips. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about an MDMA trip that’s about dying like this. It was dark. It was clearly ayahuasca territory. But these women sort of know how to go to these different. They know how to travel in these different realms. And so it’s their familiarity and their sort of making peace and friends with these different realms and ways of being. And also, you know, I asked myself, are they this open to different states of consciousness because they’ve done all these drugs, or were they like this before? And that’s how they found their way to these medicines.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:46:45] And I asked them about their childhood spiritual experiences and that many of them reported interesting ESP kinds of things that happened to them as children, and very bizarre dreams that they had. Were they? Some of them were already traveling as children into these other worlds and had, you know, it wasn’t just that they had an imaginary friend, but that they had they had experiences very psychedelic, but as children, no drugs involved. So they already had a kind of fluidity. I mean, they were already meeting sort of entities that you sometimes meet with some of these medicines. I mean, I would say it was bizarre because I didn’t have that, but it was part of their own self-selection process, the kind of opened them up to find these medicines. I was there before. I remember that from childhood. I mean, it was it was sort of like they were comfortable in very different situations. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:48] That’s so interesting. It’s almost like they they knew this space. But in earlier in life they didn’t understand like what is the portal to get there. Where’s the lever. The doorknob. Right. And this later experience, this sort of like it gave them a mechanism almost to be able to open the door.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:48:05] Exactly. And here’s another version of this from Albert Hoffman. You know, the the the Swiss chemist. You know, LSD is LSD 25. It’s the 25th iteration. And he talks about it had this combination had been sitting on his shelf in his lab for six years or something, and he writes, he said I had a certain presentiment to go back to LSD 25 and look at it again, because he had sort of ruled out this was nothing. Whatever this was, it wasn’t valuable at all. He goes back and he spills some on his skin, and that’s when he has his big experience. And he said he knew what the experience was because he had had spiritual experiences as a child in the forest of, of Switzerland. So this is the kind of thing that these women had. They had childhood spiritual experiences or unusual experiences of some sort, so that then when they found their way to these drugs, they recognized, oh, I know what this is.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:12] And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. You you’ve also described in different ways, sometimes using the word integration, sometimes not. The importance of what happens after this experience. There’s the experience itself, and then there’s the aftermath, for lack of a better word. Maybe there’s maybe there’s a word that you’re like that that better describes it. But and what happens, you know, in terms of how do I process what’s just happened, how do I integrate this? How do I assimilate the experience into my day-to-day life, my world, my the way that I look at myself and the way that makes sense of the world and my place in it moving forward. I would imagine that that that is just stunningly important in how this type of experience lands with you, stays with you, changes you.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:50:04] I agree that it’s very important, but it’s also expensive. So the research protocols are to be cost effective so they have much fewer integration sessions. I worked as a therapist for all those decades. Of course I think everybody should be in therapy forever. So I’m a bit biased. But you can see that the in vivo, the traditional way of working with these medicines is regularly. So there’s an unfolding process that works beautifully with therapy, so that it unfolds together and the journeys facilitate the therapeutic process. And in Europe they work with the medicines differently. We work with psychedelic doses because we’re Americans and more is better, right? But in Europe, they work with what they call psycholytic doses as well. And that’s where they might do a fairly low dose. Not not so perceptual, not a microdose, but a smaller journey dose in a therapy session. So you can still talk to the therapist maybe one week a month they do that and then the other three weeks they have therapy sessions without any medicines so they can talk about what got stimulated, almost like, you know, you talk about a significant dream and then it comes up again in other therapy sessions. So it’s an ongoing process. So that’s very different from the cost-effective approach that they’re researching. And of course that’s the way I would want to work with the medicines and that ongoing long-term way. And and that’s actually how I do do it myself. And, and I have a Jungian analyst I work with. I’m not in analysis, but that’s her orientation. And and she understands about psychedelics. And so I’m you know, for me integration doesn’t end. It’s it’s ongoing.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:04] It’s so interesting also because when you look at then you think about the growing volume of research that’s being done now in academic institutions, you know, in under laboratory conditions. And you want what you’re saying makes you wonder. It feels like then what they’re really examining is a very limited scope of the potential applications and the potential effects.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:52:27] Yes. And the data is still amazing. So it is a very limited way of using these medicines and they’re getting incredible results.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:37] You’ve also described the nature that a lot of what you’re talking about here is what would be called the underground version of this, or the underground world of psychedelics, which, as you described, there are a lot of legal issues around that. Do you conceive of a day where the underground world and the academic world, and the sort of like the above-ground world eventually meet up, join forces, share insight, share wisdom? Because I just I imagine the wisdom that could be passed on from those who have been operating in the underground domain for generations. At this point, if there was a way to make that into the lab and then vice versa, that the the overall benefit and just understanding of what this is and isn’t, how to work with it would be, would only benefit.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:53:26] The eldest of the elders. She’s now early 90s. She said even if these medicines become legal, I would continue to work underground because that’s the sacred container. And that’s been true, you know, since Eleusis. And, you know, in ancient Greeks used used medicines for initiations. But there is one of the women I’ve interviewed, and really only one who’s been training therapists and working with a research protocol at a VA, only one has been able to make that leap. So I don’t know how it could come together. Yeah, but certainly the underground will is alive and well, and there are a lot of choices, and I really encourage people to be very careful in your choices.


Jonathan Fields: [00:54:11] Yeah. And you also bring up something which I think is important, which is the notion of the sacred nature of where so much of this came from and what happens. And part of my curiosity has always been with the research going on, you know, how much of the effect comes from the the sacred nature, the sacred container, the sacred guidance that is created that doesn’t translate into a laboratory. And and what you’re saying and what the research is saying. Well, there are really fascinating and really compelling beneficial results, even without that within the laboratory. But but I do wonder sometimes, like what gets lost.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:54:51] Well, you know, the chaplains are beginning to speak up. There’s a group of chaplains who are interested in psychedelics, and they’re beginning to have a voice, but they have mostly been ignored. It’s because it’s been, you know, when any of these medicines become legal, it’s it’s controlled by the medical profession. I don’t know how to get around that. And there does need to be some control and some ethical considerations. Otherwise it’s just people get crazy. So everything is happening right now. So there’s there’s progress in research and in, you know, ketamine is being used, which is medically controlled. It’s not technically a psychedelic, but evidently it’s incredibly helpful for depression. And, you know, if somebody’s been horribly depressed and tried everything and nothing worked, and And then they do a ketamine session, and they feel like the depression lifted that day, that very day. I mean, these are miracles that people are reporting. So we want these medicines to be available in lots of in a whole wide range of ways. And I don’t really know exactly how that’s going to happen.


Jonathan Fields: [00:56:03] Yeah.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:56:03] And it will happen with lots of, uh, bad trips and problems and abuse of practitioners and, you know, the whole array. So that’s why I say be careful.


Jonathan Fields: [00:56:15] Yeah. If somebody’s listening to this and, you know, they’ve been exploring, they’ve been doing some reading, they’ve been researching, and maybe there’s something in their life that they’re really they’ve been struggling with and they’re thinking maybe, you know, this is an interesting thing to explore. Not that I’m recommending that for anyone. I’m not that person and neither are you. But what do you most want? People who are thinking about this who are just exploring this world? What do you most want them to know?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:56:42] Well, if they’re going to a ceremony, how many people are going to be there and how many helpers? What’s the ratio? And that’s true if they’re going to a retreat center in Costa Rica or Peru. Some of the retreat centers have 50 people in the ceremony, with maybe a half a dozen shaman and a bunch of helpers. I mean, I wouldn’t do something like that. And also, when it’s those retreat centers, how do the shaman work? Do they get five minutes with each person, which is often, you know, they do it like an assembly line. That’s not how it works in the jungle. That’s not really how the shaman work. They will sometimes sing to someone for 30 40 minutes if they’re working on something. But the, um, retreat centers have rules to set it up. So I would want to know all those kinds of things. If it’s if it’s in the States and it’s ayahuasca, what music are you going to use? Then they said, well, we have this great song list. I wouldn’t go, I would only go where an indigenously trained shaman is singing. And I, you know, just like with a therapist, you know, people would call me when I was in private practice, people would call me and ask me, well, what’s your approach? And I would say it’s different with each person. And those people would never come to me. They would never make an appointment. But it’s the wrong question. Someone calling about a therapist or a guide should ask, how many years have you been working? How deep is your own experience with the medicines? What medicines have you done? Who trained you in the medicines? And I don’t want to hear. I did an online training to be a psychedelic therapist. I don’t want to hear that. That’s not how people get trained. So as a therapist, people should have asked me, have you had your own therapy? Are you in therapy now? That’s what they should ask, things like that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:58:41] That was super helpful and super interesting. I feel like we’re just in such an interesting moment right now. There are there’s so much exploration. There’s so much interest. There’s there are these two different worlds. There’s the underground world, there’s the above-ground world. And people are experimenting and exploring both. And it feels like there’s we’re in this moment in time where, um, it’s a little bit head spinning. I think there’s a lot of interest and curiosity, but it’s also it’s people are just kind of like, I don’t I really not sure what to do here.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [00:59:12] Yes. And so I say be careful, take your time. Don’t rush. And there are psychedelic societies in every major city. Go and talk to people. Listen to them. People will often write to me and ask me to make a referral to one of the women I interviewed. I don’t do that. They’re anonymous. I protect their anonymity. There are two churches in the country, but these are Christian churches who can legally use ayahuasca. One is the Santo Daime Church in Oregon, and one is the Udv Church in Santa Fe. Now there’s a new church that has just been made legal and like the past month, and that’s in Phoenix, Arizona, and that’s the church of the The Eagle and the Condor. And they’re doing a lot of healing work with Native Americans. So this is just beginning to be a there’s a legal church approach, but it’s a buyer beware market in general.


Jonathan Fields: [01:00:14] It absolutely sounds like it. You know, I wonder where will be ten, 20 years from now. And I wonder what the conversation will be like around, um, all of these substances, the medicines, the journeys, the experiences. Um, and whether, you know, these two worlds will in some way not necessarily come together, but at least cross reference and inform each other in a more meaningful way. Yeah, it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So final question. In this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Rachel Harris, PhD: [01:00:51] You know what’s most important to people when they’re dying is their love relationships, their relatives, their friends. It’s not. I should have spent more time at the office. I should have written another book. It’s their personal relationships. And when they look at the blue zones, you know, the the areas of the world where people live longer and they’re they’re physically active into their 90s. You’ve seen the research, right? It’s about friendships hanging out with other people, talking, sharing. And the same thing comes through with the study that they did at Harvard that’s been going on for 50 or 60 years.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:32] The grant study. Right.


Rachel Harris, PhD: [01:01:33] Yeah. Yeah. It’s about relationships.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:36] Mhm. Well thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:39] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode Safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Adam Gazzaley about the science of psychedelics. You’ll find a link to Adam’s episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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