The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave
Holistic Psychedelic Retreats: Integrating Science & Spirituality
As co-founder and CEO of Beckley Retreats, Neil Markey is passionate about sharing the science-backed benefits of psychedelics in conjunction with the contemplative practices that support holistic wellbeing. At Beckley Retreats, he’s dedicated to building a business that operates with the utmost integrity, both internally and across the many communities it will touch.
- The inspiration Neil draws from his involvement in his family business, Creative Metal Design.
- Neil’s transformative journey from the US Army Special Operations to business, mindfulness and psychedelics.
- The evolution of the Beckley Foundation and how it continues to set the standard of conscious endeavoring in the psychedelic space.
- Neil’s transition from the corporate world into his journey starting Beckley Retreats
- The inspiring—and challenging—aspects of starting a unique psychedelic retreat program.
- The unique experience Beckley Retreats create through its programming.
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0:00:10.9 Neil Markey: Getting to see people before and after is incredible. To give people this whole new sense of awareness and then help them, help give them the tools to adopt a new way of being that’s more positive for them and the people around them is… I don’t know, there’s not much more that I think is more inspiring than that. It’s amazing.
0:00:36.9 PA: Welcome to the Third Wave Podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, here to bring you cutting-edge interviews with leading scientists, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals, who are exploring how we can integrate psychedelics in an intentional and responsible way for both healing and transformation. It is my honor and privilege to bring you these episodes, as you get deeper and deeper into why these medicines are so critical to the future of humanity. So let’s go, and let’s see what we can explore and learn together in this incredibly important time.
0:01:14.2 PA: Hey listeners, I am so excited to have Neil Markey on the podcast today. We’re gonna go deep into a number of topics, including craftsmanship and the role that craftsmanship plays in the burgeoning industry of psychedelic retreats. We’re gonna talk about Neil’s background as an Army Ranger, and how that inspired him to pursue further healing through psychedelic medicine, and how that then inspired Beckley Retreats. And we’re also gonna go deep into Beckley, and Amanda Fielding, and how the Beckley Foundation came to be and how that has led now to this experiential element that the Beckley Retreats is offering. What you’re gonna love about this is the attention to detail that Neil brings to his work, the context in which these retreats are provided, and the vision of what Neil communicates are on the future of Beckley and Beckley Retreats. Neil Markey is the Co-Founder and CEO of Beckley Retreats, and he is passionate about sharing the science-backed benefits of psychedelics, in conjunction with contemplated practices that support holistic well-being. As a former Captain in the US Army Special Operations 2nd Ranger Battalion, Neil was deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.
0:02:37.8 PA: And after getting his MBA degree from Columbia University, he suffered from depression and PTSD, which led him to alternative well-being practices and marked the start of a profound healing journey with mindfulness and psychedelics. Prior to Beckley Retreats, Neil worked as the Chief Growth Officer for a 450 million-dollar private equity portfolio company, and he also worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., where he led the internal mindfulness program. Before we dive into today’s episode, a word from our sponsors.
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Hey listeners, welcome back to Third Wave Podcast. As always, I’m your host, Paul Austin. And today we have another special guest, Neil Markey, the Co-Founder and CEO of Beckley Retreats. Neil, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you.
0:05:17.9 NM: Thanks for having me, Paul. Appreciate it.
0:05:18.7 PA: Absolutely. So the place that I wanna start is a little unique. And sometimes I just ask guests, “Hey, give us a little bit of your background and tell us how you got into plant medicine,” and we’ll get to that eventually, ’cause I think it’s an important part of this story. But first, I would love to start at, I think, a family business that you and your brother and your dad ran for a long time, or maybe are still running, Creative Metal Design, and just tell us a little bit about that origin story, the evolution of it, and your role in it.
0:05:50.6 NM: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I love that business. It’s my father’s business. He started it… What is it? 50 years ago, now almost. And he was mostly a sole proprietor for his entire career, he would work on projects on his own. But he would do ornamental railings and gates and sculpture, and he’s done some cool stuff, really creative, beautiful stuff. He did the gates to the Statue of Liberty when they redid them in the ’80s, these big, huge, beautiful bronze pieces. And he’s done some really cool weird sculpture, and… Yeah, I just… I love that business because it’s craftsmanship, it’s high quality, we’re building stuff that will last for literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s the anti-disposable mindset, it’s like get something that is functional art that you love. And now, I’m a partner in it. But my brother really is the guy taking over the reins, and they’ve figured out this beautiful opportunity where… I think there’s more people that really want quality and are turning away from the disposable junk. But there’s actually, there’s less and less fabricators and people that can do the art. It’s a cool little niche business that builds beautiful stuff. Thank you for opening with that, that’s close to my heart. And my dad and my brother are amazing. And now they’ve built a whole team around this beautiful art form. It’s really cool.
0:07:32.7 PA: And that, I think that capacity for creation, and what you said, craftsmanship, it’s not mass commodification, it’s custom, there’s an aesthetic to it, it’s really beautiful. And my sense is, what you’re building and creating with Beckley Retreats, is very similar in some ways.
0:07:55.1 NM: Oh, yeah.
0:07:55.6 PA: And so I’d love to… And that’s why, I think coming back to that full circle would be interesting ’cause I see a lot of that overlap and similarity with what it is that you’re creating.
0:08:05.3 NM: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. They are passion projects, they are labors of love. I think that, I believe in that work that my brother and father are doing, I think it’s beautiful. I think that it’s important for us to maintain that art form. I think it’s better for the planet, when people actually make investments in things and have fewer things than just a bunch of junk that they just dispose of. And then, yeah, Beckley is the same way. We’re trying to do it in a heart-centered way, and I believe that we’re helping people, and I believe that these mindsets that we can help, these new shifted mindsets are really positive for folks that embrace these practices in this programming. Yeah. We’re at the forefront of something. Yourself as well, and all the amazing people that are in this space pushing this new way of living and being forward. It’s really exciting. Yeah. And I love creating and building and… Especially, when I think that what we’re doing is good for humanity.
0:09:23.7 PA: Absolutely. And so I wanna circle back to that because before we get too deep, I would love just the five-minute overview of Neil Markey, and you were a Special Ops Army Captain, you worked for McKinsey for a period of time. You’re now… From what I saw, you were a Chief Commercial Officer for a huge private equity company. And so your path has been… There’s been a myriad things, and my sense is, there have been some big shifts, paradigm shifts, particularly from meditation and psychedelics that have now led you into what you’re doing now. I don’t obviously wanna tell your full story, but I would love just to hear, how is that unfolded? How did that unfold? Maybe a good place to even start is, why did you initially join the Army? Why did you become a Special Ops Army Captain, and how did things unfold from there?
0:10:20.0 NM: Yeah. Let’s see if I can do it in… I’ll try and do it in five… Or seven…
0:10:23.5 PA: Or seven minutes or… Take whatever time you want. Yeah.
0:10:24.5 NM: I grew up in… In seven… Well… Yeah. I grew up in Maryland, and then, I learned early, I had a bit of a gift in math. And then I ended up at University of Maryland, I was studying math, and I thought I was gonna go do cryptology or something at the intelligence agencies, which are all right down the street from University of Maryland, and Maryland sends a ton of math grads to the three-letter places. But then September 11th happened, and that was a huge day in my life. And from the top of the football stadium at University of Maryland, you could see the smoke from the Pentagon. And it was just, for a lot of Americans, this huge day. And then, long story short, I ended up in the military, I left school. I thought the United States was at risk, and I believed that we needed to do something and I thought I was being a patriot and I ended up enlisting for a bit. And then I came back and did the officer training program and then went in as a Lieutenant. And I ended up in Iraq leading an infantry Lieutenant… Or leading an infantry platoon as a Lieutenant. And by the time we got there, we had learned that this weapons of mass destruction thing was completely wrong. It was a challenging time because we were still putting people at risk, and we had put Iraq into a civil war.
0:11:55.9 NM: It was arguably the biggest foreign policy mistake of the United States history, and we were in the middle of it, it was like, what a shit show. And so, I was there for almost a year and then came back. And I got lucky, honestly, it’s a lot of luck, timing, and you gotta have some people supporting you, but I got a chance to go try out for the Ranger Regiment which is a really small Special Operations unit, and I went there. And I was already starting to have some struggles. I’d had a head injury. The environments are quite toxic. Guys are getting hurt. It’s just a lot on the central nervous system. And then, the Ranger Regiment was challenging too. Although, part of me loved it. It was really storied times to be there. And I was more removed, I was more support there. So, hats off to the guys that were really in it. But I was super proud to be in that unit and do what I could. Leroy Petry got the Medal of Honor when I was there. Obama was talking about the missions on the news that these guys were doing. So it was exciting. We had all the coolest weapons and gadgets, and then, came back circle with the intelligence community that I had always thought that I was gonna be a part of and work closely with them.
0:13:14.5 NM: But it was traumatic. Guys were getting hurt. Guys were getting killed. At one point in time, we had three suicides in 90 days. The mental health was in crisis. And by the time I did my first Ranger deployment, a lot of these guys had done their 10th or 11th, so it was just that the trauma in the organization was incredible. And I got out after two deployments to Afghanistan, and then I went to Columbia University for grad school, and I was doing a program there. And the brotherhood was gone, the mission was gone. I was in New York city, and I was going through a divorce and I was in a bad shape, mental health, I was really spinning. Although, outside looking in, I was doing really well. I was at a really good school, I had been this highly ranked officer, and I was getting job offers at really prestigious companies. But there was a point where I was starting to scare myself with my own thoughts, I was like, “This isn’t good, and I’m kind of isolating.” And I had tried lots of different SSRIs and anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills, and nothing was working. And then, I think, say by the grace of God, whatever, met this man by the name of Home Nguyen, who was doing his PhD there and was a very seasoned meditator and ran this place called the MindKind Institute.
0:14:38.8 NM: And he saw… He saw I was struggling, he could see right through my tough exterior, and he took me under his wing and he taught me meditation, and that was this beginning of opening into a new way of being and my central nervous system starting to settle, get out of the fight or flight, get a bit more smooth and sync with things. And then through that network of connections of people in New York that are meditators and consciousness-seekers, I had my first experience with a high dose of psilocybin, but with intention. I had done it in my youth recreationally, but had never tried it as a way to heal. And this was 10 years ago, so it’s 2012, and that was profound. And that then sent me on this chapter of where I was in grad school, and had some free time and was studying meditation and studying different religions, and going on lots of different long-form meditation programs and different psychedelic retreats in the US on the underground, and then different parts of Central America. And there’s a long history and some incredible non-profits out there that have been getting Special Operations guys down into Mexico to do treatment. So there’s this history around that.
0:15:58.5 NM: And then I started a business with my brother, and adjacent to my father’s business we were talking about, and I was doing well, I was heading in a better direction, my anxiety was going away, I was sleeping, I didn’t feel as frantic. And then I finished school, I moved home, I was working on this startup full-time, did a teacher’s certification in meditation, was teaching meditation to mostly business people ’cause of the MBA, but then I was teaching Special Operations guys and was teaching intelligence agency guys. And then, was doing that and was doing well. I had all the things. I had community, I had purposeful work, I was in nature a lot, I had a really strong meditation practice and mentors that were helping me. And then I had this… I had been deferring this job offer with McKinsey & Company, and I asked them for another deferral ’cause things were going well, and I was like, “Let me do this for another year,” and they were like, “No, no, we’re not gonna be your permanent backup plan, man, we’re McKinsey,” and I was like, “Alright, that’s fair.” And so I ended up… I’d always wanted to see behind the curtains, so I ended up going, and part of me loved being there. It was very intellectually stimulating.
0:17:13.6 NM: It’s kind of cool for a lower class kid or lower middle class kid from Maryland to be in board rooms and working at this high level of business, and your ego loves that. And I got to co-lead the internal mindfulness program that was just getting up and going with a friend, so I was super proud of that, and I was fascinated by that. But then, that was no question now, looking back, the period where my mental health started going the wrong way, and what I’ve learned is, environment matters, and alignment with the work matters. And there’s just the reality that a lot of the projects and stuff I did there, weren’t projects that I should be doing. And there’s amazing people there, but the environment is not the best environment for well-being, and living a peaceful existence. And then I ended up having more anxiety come back, and then I was at the end of my McKinsey time and got this job offer to go do private equity stuff. It was a lot of money and very fancy, but that was even worse. That was even more dehumanizing work, that was all about the money and people weren’t even shy about it there. And it just brings out the worst in people, and it was a lot of times, we were making wealthy people wealthier at the expense of workers and it felt horrible, but I had gotten… I had lost my way.
0:18:37.7 NM: And then I did that for a handful of years, and I ended up… In my last role, I led this restructuring for a PE portfolio company, and then the CEO liked me and asked me if I’d be an executive for the company. And this was a huge thing for me career-wise. It was an executive-level role, I was the youngest executive by 16 years. So again, most people outside looking in were just like, “Oh wow, look at Neil professionally.” But then I did that for a bit, but I ended up miserable. I ended up basically back in the same spot I was coming out of the military, with all the anxiety and all of the relationship troubles and the alcohol, and this just, out-of-sync life. And also, realizing that so many of my peers were feeling this and living this way. And they didn’t have combat experience, they just lived in shitty work environments for a long time, and I was like, “This is madness, and I’m leaving.” And I left. And this was a few years ago, and I knew how to be well. So I got back to it, and I got back into meditation, and then this whole thing with Beckley has just been super organic, which I think is a good signal. And that was more than… Way more than seven minutes and I didn’t even get you to the Retreats part. Maybe just stop there for a sec, sorry.
0:20:01.6 PA: I love it. And I think what’s unique about your story is, it’s almost like a spiral, in that you went in, you did combat, you popped out, you found meditation, you found psychedelics, you did your initial round of healing, but it was almost like, you didn’t have enough of the intensity, in a way. And there was maybe something about your nervous system or something about where you were at that you needed, or you needed to double down and go even deeper into it, which has probably given you some then incredible business experience in terms of what you did with McKinsey and what you did at the private equity company. And how you popped out the other side, it’s almost The Second Mountain. David Brooks, who’s an author, wrote this book, The Second Mountain. And I’m almost feeling that that’s what’s happening now with you and Beckley Retreats, is you’re really dropping into something that is what you really want to do in the long run.
0:21:03.8 NM: Yeah. Yeah, I… And it’s interesting, I had a lot of pain and trauma along that path. But now, like, “Oh, thank God for all of it.” It did. It has given me the skills and the experience and the credibility, I think, to do this work well and with credibility. And now, I do feel like this is my life’s work, helping people find meditation, and a different way of existing in the world is what I think I was put on this Earth to do, I just had to go through these chapters to learn some things. I hope I can have 10 smoother years, but you never know. And…
0:21:55.6 PA: Well, and the psychedelic space, it’s interesting, having been in this, now for seven years, more like four to five years full-time. It’s deceptively challenging, even from a business perspective, largely because the legal landscape is so uncertain, if you will. And so what I’ve learned more than anything is, adaptability and navigating uncertainty, and the ability to iterate even as a CEO is super-central and important, because you just… You don’t know what the landscape’s gonna look like a year from now, three years from now, five years from now.
0:22:37.3 NM: Oh yeah.
0:22:39.7 PA: And I will say that this is becoming increasingly true of most things in this day and age, is what it seems like. And so psychedelics, meditation, these contemplated practices really help us to navigate uncharted waters without losing our cool, so to say.
0:22:54.8 NM: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, and the space is… It’s complex, but I know we’re helping people. You know what I mean? It’s so clear to me, and I think we are bringing something… There’s lots of people doing this, not in any way saying it’s just Beckley, but this collective is bringing something new and beautiful to the world, you know what I mean? That the world desperately needs. So it’s an incredibly exciting time. Yeah, it’s a real humbling experience to get the opportunity to do this work, particularly with Amanda, who I love and think is an absolute icon. And it’s been really fun.
0:23:33.5 PA: Amanda is… She’s quite the person, which… So you’re the first… From my memory…
0:23:38.4 NM: [chuckle]
0:23:41.3 PA: I think you’re the first person we’ve interviewed in the podcast that’s working for Beckley. At some point I would love to have Amanda on, I’m sure we will, but we haven’t had that chance yet. So I’d love if we could just zoom out a little bit. I’m sure some of our listeners know about Beckley, have heard about Beckley, are familiar with Beckley, but there may be others who are not. So I’d love if you could just give us a little bit of a synopsis of, what is the Beckley Foundation? And particularly in the last two to three years, how has the foundation grown into Beckley Waves and Beckley Psytech and Beckley Retreats, and just tell us a little bit about that evolution and growth?
0:24:16.9 NM: Yeah, it’s a cool story, I hope that it’s told more widely. So yeah, it really starts with this woman, Amanda Fielding, who’s from the UK. She’s actually British royalty, she’s a countess, which only adds to the mystique. She had some experiences when she was young, with LSD and other psychedelics, and she just instantly was like, “This could change the world, these things are so powerful.” And so she really just through sheer charisma and willpower was able to rally the world’s leading scientists on psychedelics, and she established the Beckley Foundation. And the Beckley Foundation has been leading psychedelic research for the last handful of decades, they’re really been at the forefront. So studying the compounds for all different types of applications, and then also influencing drug policy all over the world, because she knew that needed to change as well. So they’ve been pushing both. Americans on average are probably more familiar with MAPS, and Rick Doblin in the US and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The Beckley Foundation is very similar in ethos and what they’re trying to do, they’re just in Europe. But Amanda and Rick are old-time friends, and they’ve been working on this stuff, and…
0:25:51.7 NM: So that’s been happening for the last few decades, and they’ve been leading research. And it’s really because of a handful of those renaissance men and women that we’re having these conversations today, because they have been pushing the policy and the research that we can now look to and say, “Hey, this is obvious, people, come on.” And so it’s been beautiful being around this because for most of her life, the world thought she was nuts. It was so… She was so fringe. All these people that kept this stuff alive over the last few decades, so fringe. And now the entire world is like, “Well, okay, we’re seeing it.” And so she’s having this period of recognition that she so much deserves. And then, just this past year, she was in Forbes as the Queen Of The Psychedelic Renaissance and she’s just getting all of this cool publicity, and she’s brilliant, she deserves it. And now, her sons, she’s got two sons, Rock and Cosmo, which, those names check out for a woman that has been doing psychedelics for basically her entire life. [chuckle] And they’re amazing. And they’ve been obviously very close to this world for their whole lives, and they saw these shifts happening over the last handful of years, and you start to see this capital coming into the system, and the public perceptions changing.
0:27:18.6 NM: And I think, a lot of them in that circle were like, “Well, we’ve been doing this as a non-profit, but for us to scale this and to be a bit of a counter to maybe some of the less… The non-ethical money coming in, that’s just… ” Are unashamed to say it’s just about margin, to be a bit of a counter to that, and say, “No, we can do this mindfully, we can do this, we can be a conscious organization and do this, and let’s set the standard around that.” So they put together, which became Beckley Waves, which is a venture studio, and they were looking to make seed investments in early stage psychedelic companies. But it was much more about, who’s got the right heart, who’s got the right ethos, who’s gonna go build an organization that’s an example for the industry on, like how to have… To do it right, to have good benefits sharing within communities, which is mindful about showing homage to the Indigenous people that have held these lineages. It’s gonna do this right and not just try and be extractive and suck as much money out of it as they can, they’re like, “We’ve gotta do this.” So this was their vehicle to do that.
0:28:36.7 NM: And then, Beckley Psytech got started out of that, and then Cosmo is the CEO of that, and they’re doing drug development, and they’ve had some very successful financial grounds, and they’ve got an incredible team. So, keep an eye on them these next few years. And then, Retreats is another business that they may have made investments in with me, and we can talk more about that, how that all came together. And then they have Beckley Academy, which is doing therapist training. And then they’ve got some others small minority stake investments in lots of different companies in the ecosystem. And then now they’re really focusing on, the drug development is an important piece of this, but the infrastructure is a really important piece of this too, we need the therapists, you need the facilities, and you gotta find people that are gonna do that stuff with heart and do it ethically, and so they’re trying to help build that ecosystem.
0:29:35.8 PA: And it was fascinating, I remember I was talking with a few friends back in 2018, one of whom was an early investor in Synthesis, and he ended up becoming quite close with Amanda. And it sounded like the timing was perfect in terms of what happened with the psychedelic renaissance, and all the investment coming in in particular, because I know MAPS and Beckley… I think Beckley started in ’98, I believe. So for over 20 years, MAPS is ’85 or ’86, 20 to 30 to 40 years, they’ve been solely dependent on non-profit funds, that creates a lot of stress for everyone. And so now to have an opportunity, like you said, to strike that balance between “No, we are Psytech and the Academy and Retreats, it is a for-profit model, but it isn’t about extractivism, it isn’t about… It’s purely shareholder value,” there’s a balance there, and it really is about the heart and the integrity and the longevity of what it is that you’re creating.
0:30:42.2 NM: Yeah, and this is a… I believe so firmly in this. I don’t think that capitalism in and of itself is bad, it’s a tool, and basically, it’s doing what it’s designed to do, the equation is really, really simple. It’s just that it needs to have checks and balances in place so that it doesn’t go to the extreme, which is focusing all of the resources that are generated into a very small group. We can have more distributed equity and resource mechanisms, so that as organizations grow, they’re more fully owned by the communities, more fully owned by the practitioners, the people that are part of it. And then, I think this is actually what the world needs. The world doesn’t… Non-profits are amazing and they serve their purpose, but I think for us to have broad change and across the world is like, we need this next generation of entrepreneurs to think differently about capitalism and how they’re gonna build their organizations. It’s hugely important.
0:31:50.9 PA: Which, I think, dovetails well with what you’re building with Beckley Retreats. And so we started with the craftsmanship and the family business, and then went into your story, and now I heard a little bit about Beckley. And I’d love if you could just tell us then a little bit more about the story about, how did Beckley Retreats come together? How were you chosen as the CEO? And what have you learned so far, and starting to get this off the ground, so to say? ‘Cause it’s still early days, and…
0:32:22.5 NM: Super early days.
0:32:23.5 PA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
0:32:24.5 NM: Yeah. Well, a lot of luck in timing, like many things in my life. I left the corporate world, I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I knew that I wasn’t gonna keep chasing money at the expense of my own well-being. And I knew that I wanted to do something that I believed in and was proud of, and wasn’t half-embarrassed to tell people what I was doing. I ended up in Mexico, and I just got super back into meditation, I was meditating a lot, hours a day, like I had been doing 10 years previously, or eight years previously. And I got back into using psychedelics again, mostly psilocybin. The Huichol people are there, and I was in Sayulita, Mexico, and Mexico City, and that western part. And I got to spend some time with them, and just be in a different environment, very close to nature. I was in the ocean everyday, I was surfing. And then I started leading morning runs, just getting a group together and then we would meditate, do a morning run and then meditate.
0:33:41.9 NM: And then those became afternoon sessions, where we would run, meditate, take some psilocybin, run, meditate, paint some driftwood, or just sit and be, or go on a nature walk. And I was just playing around for a while. And I had been on a bunch of programs, years prior, I had done a lot of different psychedelic retreats, and I had done a lot of different meditation programs and had learned a lot. And so then I started just putting things together, different modules that I had done. I’m a big fan of MBSR meditation, so we were doing that with psychedelics and breathwork and mindful movement, and did that for a while, but it was super unstructured. And then, I don’t know, a year into it or something, I got to this point where I was like, “Oh, this is what I wanna do. In some way, shape or form, the time is now. The world is opening up to this stuff. I believe in it, I love it, it’s a passion of mine, I love teaching meditation, meditating myself, meditating with others.” And I was like, “I think this is what I wanna do, and I wanna figure out a way to do it in a big way, in a real way.” And I also…
0:35:02.7 NM: Yeah, I’ve got this Ranger in me, still, that was seeing some of the bad actors maybe coming into this space that will leave unknown, but it’s like, it’s clear, there are people moving into psychedelics. They give a damn about individuals really, or give a damn about our planet. It’s like, “I’m trying to suck as much money out of this thing in as much… In as shortest time as I can.” And that pisses me off, that gets me going a little bit. And so I was like, “We gotta find… We’ve gotta try and rally… There’s enough good people in this industry. How do we start working together and be a counter to that negative force that’s coming in?” And, yeah, I started reaching out to old friends from grad school and thinking about where I could find some partners, and it was… Pretty quickly, I realized that one of the partners in Beckley Waves, Dan Love, was a classmate of mine, and it was just serendipitous timing. So I’m running these scrappy retreats, calling them even retreats in Mexico was probably a bit of a stretch, there was just kind of angst. But I was…
0:36:18.2 NM: You’re thinking about wanting to do these more formal, professional programs that would be more accessible to the skeptics and to the average run-of-the-mill, white-collar professionals, was how I was coming at it, and I got connected with Dan and he was like, “Well, it’s interesting, we’ve been really hoping to get into retreats.” And they had actually done a pretty wide scan of retreats out there, and interviewed a lot of the management. And then I think what they said was, they had tons and tons of people that had amazing hearts and that could run a single retreat operation, but there’s a big difference between that and running a… Scaling an organization and having seen something at scale. And they’re like, “We think that we do wanna build something at scale for lots of reasons. One, you can get the costs way down and make it way more accessible,” but they had big dreams too.
0:37:21.0 NM: And then I came along, and it was just this really serendipitous connection. I needed a network and a brand and some kind of support, and they needed someone that could… That believed in this stuff and could be an operator and bring a good team together, so it was a good match. And apparently a couple of months before we even got connected, they were having conversations and saying like, “If we could, we would love to find a veteran that could lead the organization,” because it’s the one bipartisan issue in the United States right now is psychedelics for veteran healing. And veterans can speak about this stuff a little bit more forcefully, I guess you could say, and that, and Americans will listen. So like, “If we could find a veteran, that’d be great.” But they were almost… And then I showed up and it was like, “Well, let’s do this together.” It’s such a perfect match and then… Yeah, it’s been really incredible.
0:38:27.7 PA: I’m curious, I think you’ve done your first retreat in Jamaica. I don’t know if it was the first official retreat…
0:38:33.9 NM: We’ve done a few. Yeah.
0:38:34.6 PA: I know you have a retreat coming up, I believe, next week in The Netherlands.
0:38:39.7 NM: Yeah.
0:38:41.9 PA: You have several retreats in the fall as well, which I wanna hear a little bit more about. But just tell us some of the lessons you’ve learned so far in getting this up and going, and having that first retreat and now rolling out additional retreats. What is it that continues to excite you, and what are you really passionate about? And what are some of the challenges that you’re finding, with just starting this as a model? I did this myself four years ago, with Synthesis, and helped to do the first eight retreats, and then I stepped out, so I know some of the excitement that comes with launching, and the inevitable challenges of real people dealing with real shit when they’re coming into a circle in context, right?
0:39:26.6 NM: Yeah. Getting to see people before and after is incredible. Right. And oftentimes, the feedback has been pretty consistent, but people will be like, “To say it was completely life-changing is an understatement.” That’s powerful. And to give people this whole new sense of awareness and then help them, help give them the tools to adopt the new way of being that’s more positive for them and the people around them is, I don’t know, there’s not much more that I think is more inspiring than that, it’s amazing. Some of the science around where trauma is… I’m sure you’re familiar with “The Body Keeps the Score”, and this theory that our memory, it’s actually deep in our tissues, it’s even in our genetic make-up, and we don’t understand all the mechanics of how this happens, but these plants, it looks like they… They allow this, these deep traumas to surface and move on, and so they actually have some impact on the way our muscles and our tissues, and the way we hold our body and the muscles in our face, and the inflammation in our body, and all these things, so people look different. Oftentimes, they’re just like, “You look like a different person, you look lighter.”
0:41:03.9 NM: And it’s hard to describe, but there’s these real deep changes that can happen, and it gives me chills talking about it. That’s been fun. And I think that, the mystical experience in and of itself is powerful and transformational. I do think that we’re doing a really good job of getting people ready to have that experience, and then helping them afterwards integrate and make the most of that experience, and I think we’ve been getting that feedback too, which I think is… And I think Synthesis does an amazing job of this as well, but there’s lots of organizations out there that I don’t think have as keen of a mind on this, and it’s just more about just the mystical experience, and I think… I think they’re leaving a lot on the table. You know what I mean? And I think that they’re increasing the risk quite a bit too. But for certain, leaving a lot on the table by not having good pre and post. So yeah, that’s inspiring. The challenges, it’s complex. Now, we’re thinking, “I didn’t even think about this, but we’ve gotta worry about currency fluctuations between Jamaica and the United States, and practitioners, and facilities in Jamaican dollars.” Well, who the hell thought about that a year ago, when we were doing the financial projections? Not me.
0:42:29.0 NM: And the complex… There’s complexity too, it’s fascinating, but it’s complex around the practitioners, because the practitioners, these are artists, these are artisans, and many of them have been operating off, out of… Underground and doing their own thing, and now we’re trying to professionalize the industry a bit, so we have protocols and standards, and insurance, and contracts, and a lot of these things, there’s gonna be… There’s some rub there, but it’s to be expected. And look, any big new thing, there’s… By definition, you’re gonna have some rubs around the edges ’cause you’re making some big change. I don’t know. I think, I’ve been in some extremely challenging situations before, and I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’m able to look at them now with curiosity. And again, I so believe in this work, even the challenging things, I’m almost like, “We’re doing… This is a first,” or one of few that are breaking through this and figuring this stuff out.” And so it’s energizing to me, what this work we’re doing and bringing this stuff to the world is so fascinating.
0:44:08.1 PA: To be an innovator in that way, and it’s like the upside of that is, you get to create from a very authentic place, and the things that you create often haven’t been brought through before, which then feels very validating. And I don’t mean validating in terms of… From an insecure perspective, but validating in terms of, “Wow, this is actually resonating with people, and it’s beautiful to see how it’s shifting and changing lives.” The downside of that, in my own experience has been, it sometimes feels like you’re laying the railroad track as the train is coming down, and if you don’t lay it quick enough, you’re about to get blasted and run over. So there is that element as well.
0:44:52.6 NM: Well, yeah, I hear you. And I’m trying to… I think, in the typical US business world, particularly the venture startup world, it’s Zuckerberg’s move fast and break things. This… And to me, I don’t think that that applies to this work, it can’t. I think that actually, we need to move at the divine pace or the natural pace, in accordance with how the natural world is moving along with us. We don’t wanna break things, these are human beings, and we don’t need to be in a hurry. To me, I’m like, “How do we do this in a mindful way and move at the right pace?” Now, I do believe that we’re helping people, so it’s like we wanna help more people, but we can’t be in such a rush that we become mindless and we’re not… We’ve gotta do this right. You know what I mean? And so we’ve gotta slow the train down and make sure that we do have the rails in place. But it’s a daily energetic check to make sure that I’m not over my skis and not then getting the organization over our skis. But there’s a lot of tension, there’s tension there. Right.
0:46:13.8 PA: There is… I love the quote, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
0:46:18.4 NM: Smooth is fast. That is a Special Operations quote.
0:46:22.5 PA: Is it really?
0:46:23.3 NM: Yeah, that’s… Oh, I mean, I don’t know where it came… We would use it all the time. That’s when Rangers go and they clear rooms, you can move quickly, but that’s not frantic. And we sometimes conflate the two together, it’s like… And I also think in the Special Operations community, it was, there was this idea around tactical pauses, that I don’t… You don’t really see in the business community. It’s like, you always need to be like pinging around and faster is better all the time. But in the Special Operations where it was like, yeah, there was times you did need to move very quickly and you needed to move with some power, but then there was times where you needed to just sit and see how things were gonna develop, and take a tactical pause and take a breath. And I don’t think we take enough breaths in the corporate America. And this is why you… This why these… A function of these toxic work environments.
0:47:25.6 PA: And why, technique like MSBR, which… Is it MSBR? MBSR?
0:47:30.5 NM: MBSR.
0:47:31.6 PA: MBSR, which you mentioned, and just to explain to the audience, it’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, it was started by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s similar to Vipassana in some ways, right? There’s overlap or commonality.
0:47:44.5 NM: Yeah. Yeah. There’s lots. It’s just, awareness of the present moment. Super simple, but not easy. [chuckle] I love it so much because when I found it, I had no real interest in Buddhism or a spiritual approach, I just wanted to feel better. And so MBSR, Kabat-Zinn was a doctor, and he studied in the East, and he was like, “Oh my God, this is transformational stuff here, but I’m a Western doctor and they’re gonna laugh at me if I come back in robes, and… ” He sanitized it a bit. And he took out… And not a bit, a lot. He took out all of the religious ties and was just pragmatic, “Hey, it’s just awareness of the present moment, it’s just watching your breath, and then you can still get all these amazing measurable benefits.” So to me, it was accessible at the time. And I think for a lot of people too, it can be that first step into this world. Now, I would say, now 10 years later, my whole perspective on spirituality and everything is completely different, but it started through this very non-spiritual, very sanitized way.
0:49:14.1 PA: Well, and if I remember, the core of it was all these people in a corporate workspace, let’s say, ’cause he was working out of Boston and the Northeast, it was, they had all this chronic stress, that was leading to…
0:49:25.1 NM: Chronic stress, yeah.
0:49:25.9 PA: Incredible health issues. Right? And that, by just doing this eight-week program, I think it was an eight-week program, MBSR, all these normal things that… Or not all these normal things, all these issues that people are having all of a sudden would start to disappear and go away, simply because of the mindfulness practice. Which was, when I started to get into meditation 10, 12 years ago, I was like, “Holy shit. That’s incredible.” And what I’m trying to draw the parallel between is, there’s an overlap between that and I think, probably the demographic that you’re intending to serve with Beckley Retreats, those where it might be their first step into psychedelics, or maybe they haven’t gone to a retreat before, you’re welcoming them in to an environment that’s safe. And we got 10 minutes or so left of the podcast, so I’d love to just drill down a little bit, what is Beckley Retreats about? What is the program? Who are you bringing in to lead and guide those? Just give us the 411 on, what are you creating with these retreats? What’s the structure and the flow and the format of them?
0:50:36.8 NM: Yeah. Well, it’s usually 15 to 20 participants, and it’s an 11-week program, which is four weeks of preparation which is done digitally, which is a series of calls with the group. So we do a handful of things. We get the group dynamic started, which is really important. We teach some of the basic well-being practices, like meditation, some breathwork exercises, to simplify it, we try and get people to take a little bit better care of themselves. It’s preferred if you can get the mind and the body in a bit more alignment and the central nervous system a bit more settled down when you come into the one of these programs. So that’s what we’re trying to do. And then, the intention setting and getting people to journal and really contemplate where they’re at, why are they doing this, what do they want out of it, to go benefit in that? And then the retreat is six days in-person, lots of meditation. To me, meditation’s foundational. A lot of times, I think it gets bucketed in with a lot of these other well-being things. And to me, it’s like, no, this is the base. Meditation’s a big part of the program. And then we teach breathwork. We do some Western psychotherapy type modules in a group. It’s very research-informed programming. And then on day two and day four, we have psilocybin sessions, and those are usually six hours long…
0:52:11.6 PA: High dose. Correct?
0:52:13.1 NM: High dose. Yeah, yeah, yeah. High dose. So three to six grams, depending on… Everybody gets their own dose, which is a function… It’s a discussion between them and whoever the lead practitioner is, but it’s a function of previous trauma, current level of anxiety. Some people come in very comfortable and they’re ready, and some people, they wanna do a little… They wanna dip their foot in. That first one can be a good opportunity to do that. And then the second one, for most people if you… A lot of people coming have had psychedelic experiences, but they’ve been a bit traumatic. So there are definitely some anxiety, and it’s like they didn’t have the setting right. You know what I mean? These things are actually incredibly safe, if you get the setting right. People come and they have that first experience, and they learn that it’s not as scary and actually you can steer it and understand a bit what’s going on. So then they’ll go a little bit larger in the second session. And then… Yeah, some intentional… I think this is actually really important, and why a retreat model is probably gonna be… It can be more helpful than a clinic model is, there’s intentional, just downtime, which is actually really important. You get people off their devices and you get them in nature and you just let them sit and be for a while.
0:53:46.7 NM: I’m a big believer in that, that actually a lot of the newness and the change actually comes in the space. So you gotta create space for people, and then that’s when they can get to some shifts. And then on the back end, we have six weeks of digital… Everybody goes home, we have six weeks of digital integration, which is led by the lead facilitator, weekly group calls. And I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, and maybe, probably most of your listeners have too, but this metaphor around. By the time you get to be a middle-aged adult, a lot of how we show up in the world is these deep, deep emotional and subconscious patterns. And we’re just… We’re quite a bit on autopilot. And you can think about those as ruts on a ski mountain. It’s really hard to turn out of them, you’re gonna likely go down that same path that you’ve been going down, where if you high dose psilocybin, high dose psychedelics, it’s this fresh layer of snow. Now, you can still end up going down those old paths, but if you do the work and you plan and you have the right support around you, you can chart new paths in this fresh snow. It’s like the brain is in this malleable state, it’s easier to make change during this window, so we try and take advantage of that window.
0:55:11.2 PA: And that’s a Mendel Kaelen quote I always love to… ‘Cause people think of it as Michael Pollan, but Mendel was the one who came up with that. And just to bring this back, Mendel’s research was supported by the Beckley Foundation ’cause he was at Imperial College back in the day. So it all comes full circle.
0:55:27.8 NM: It all comes around. Yeah. One of the studies that was super impactful to my perceptions was David Nutt’s study 2010, the UK drug harm study. And so I read that when I was in grad school and was doing all the psychedelics and was doing all this meditation, I was like, “Oh my God, the world’s just got this whole thing wrong.” And I remember it was in The Economist, and I remember it being meaningful to me. Now, however many years later to realize that it was Amanda in the Beckley Foundation that designed that study, and was the brilliance behind that study, it was cool to have that come full circle on me too.
0:56:07.9 PA: That’s beautiful. And just knowing what we had developed… What I had helped to develop at Synthesis, I have been involved for some time, and now seeing Beckley come out… I spoke with Jeya, who’s one of the co-founders and helping with experience design probably a year and a half ago, about this initially when she was starting to put together some of the ideas. And I think what you’ve built is… It’s really landing the most critical components. And I just wanna go back and re-emphasize a few things for our listeners that I think are key, the 15 to 20 participants, I think is essential. There are some retreats where, that you probably know of, that are doing 50 to 75 to 100, which is highly irresponsible. 15 to 20 feels like a really good dynamic in terms of you get to know everyone really well, and it’s also small enough that people can really move through things, the prep and the integration. This isn’t just a six-day retreat, it’s really an 11-week program. I think that’s also really essential to emphasize.
0:57:11.8 PA: And then, what I also love is the emphasis on the meditation. And I love what you said about how essential it is. When often I talk about habit formation, building habits, I often refer to meditation as the keystone essential habit, even more so than breathwork or yoga or any of these things, because to learn true stillness is so anathema to our cultural conditioning. And to be able to let go of all the noise and drop into that, it then opens up a spaciousness within a psychedelic experience where like you said, you can then learn how to navigate it. People have more control than they think, they also don’t, which is the paradox of psychedelics, but knowing that you can navigate that and drop into the breath, I think, is so key for it. And then I think the final piece is, psychotherapists and musicians, you brought in really top top-line folks all across the board to really offer a premium product, which I think is key.
0:58:15.7 NM: Thank you, thank you for that. Yeah, I think we’re doing something that’s super special, and I think Synthesis is incredible too. And they’re often the standards and we’re learning from them, and I hope that we’ll keep collaborating on work together. Even people that have done a proper psilocybin ceremony with a single facilitator in nature or something and had a profound experience, I would still encourage them, when the time is right, come, see… When you get together five or six facilitators that are also musicians, and… You have to see it to believe it. These are real artisans of this craft, and it is a beautiful thing to watch them do this magical work that is… It’s beyond explanation. But everybody should get a chance to try it at some point in their life, it’s really wild.
0:59:12.4 PA: It’s a vortex, a vortex of creation, and like you said, magic, which is, beautiful to exist in. Absolutely.
0:59:19.6 NM: Yeah. I love that Einstein quote, he’s like, “There’s two ways to live your life. One, as if nothing’s a miracle, and the other as if everything’s a miracle.” And I think when you do this work, you see that it’s obvious, everything is a miracle.
0:59:39.2 PA: I love that. Well, final, not even thought, but just if folks wanna learn more about Beckley Retreats, if they’re may be interested in attending one of the upcoming retreats, where can they go find out more information about what’s coming up?
0:59:53.2 NM: Yeah, beckleyretreats.com is our site. And then… They can reach out to me, I love talking about this stuff. So they can email me and we can find some time to get to connect on the calendar. And, yeah, thanks so much, Paul, I appreciate this.
1:00:12.4 PA: This is fun, Neil. Thanks for coming on. Thanks for sharing your story. Thanks for your patience. I know we had to reschedule once and come out and really even today to make this happen. It was fun.
1:00:21.9 NM: All good, man. My pleasure.
1:00:28.6 PA: Hey listeners, thanks so much for tuning in to today’s episode. As Neil talked about with Beckley Retreats, they’re starting to roll out some incredible retreat programs, and we wanna make sure that you get first access to those. If you wanna book a retreat with Beckley Retreats, go to go.beckleyretreats.com/thirdwave. That’s go.beckleyretreats.com/thirdwave. You can also, if you just find the website, tell them you came from Third Wave as part of that process.
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