The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave
Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine & Shamanism
Alexander Shester, M.D.
Paul F. Austin sits down with Dr. Alexander Shester to discuss his new book, Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine & Shamanism.
In this intimate, in-person conversation, Alex humbly shares his wisdom and perspective from decades of experience as a psychiatrist and visionary psychedelic explorer. He sheds light on the intersection of shamanism, psychedelics, and mental health, and recalls captivating stories from his time being mentored by the late psychologist and psychedelic researcher Ralph Metzner.
Alexander Shester, M.D. is a medical doctor, board-certified psychiatrist, and Jungian Analyst. He has over thirty years of experience studying and participating in guided Vision Quests using shamanic principles in nature settings. His recently-published book, Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism, is his personal first-hand memoir of using entheogens including ayahuasca, jurema, psilocybin, San Pedro cactus, peyote, iboga, toad, and more, for deep spiritual exploration and his own healing journey.
The book also contains information about these plant medicines and synthetic entheogens from a scientific, historical, mythological, and cultural perspective, using shamanic principles to orient and organize a safe and profound psychonautical venture. It contains numerous color visionary artworks to amplify the psychedelic experience, and to use in meditation. The book is dedicated to his primary mentor, Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., with a foreword by the eminent psychedelic researcher, Charles Grob, M.D. Alex is presently retired, focusing on his music, art, and writing.
- On visionary art and the power of psychedelic plant medicines.
- Ayahuasca and the transpersonal journey into the collective unconscious.
- Alex recalls his primary mentor, Ralph Metzner: his visionary circles and contributions to the psychedelic renaissance.
- The value of community in Alexander’s healing.
- Alex’s paths to psychiatry and psychedelics.
- How Alex’s psychedelic experiences informed his psychiatry practice.
- What can shamanism offer to the field of psychiatry?
- Remembering our nature-relatedness with the aid of plant medicines.
- Endarkenment: facing the shadow.
- Alex’s sage advice for those seeking psychedelic experiences.
- Alex’s book, Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism
- Book, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
- Paul F. Austin featured in the Rolling Stone article: “Meet the World’s First Online LSD Microdosing Coach”
- The Red Book by C. G. Jung
- Book, A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly
These show links may contain affiliate links. Third Wave receives a small percentage of the product price if you purchase through the above affiliate links.
This episode is brought you by Psyched Wellness, creators of Calm, an over-the-counter Amanita muscaria extract that may help to reduce stress, ease muscular tension and promote restorative sleep. Go to shop.psyched-wellness.com and use code THIRDWAVE23 to get 15% off.
This episode is sponsored by Beckley Retreats, a leading holistic wellbeing company that offers transformative self-development programs by leveraging the science-backed power of psychedelics in concert with supportive therapeutic modalities. As a trusted partner of Third Wave, we strongly recommend the upcoming retreats for Beckley in Jamaica, as well as many other locations. Head to go.beckleyretreats.com/thirdwave to book your transformational psilocybin program today.
This podcast is brought to you by Third Wave’s Mushroom Grow Kit. The biggest problem for anyone starting to explore the magical world of mushrooms is consistent access from reputable sources. That’s why we’ve been working on a simple, elegant (and legal!) solution for the past several months. Third Wave Mushroom Grow Kit and Course has the tools you need to grow mushrooms along with an in-depth guide to finding spores.
0:00:00.5 Paul Austin: Welcome back to The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave. Today, I am speaking with Dr. Alexander Shester, the author of Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism.
0:00:13.8 Alexander Shester: What amazes me is when you encounter these things within yourself, ancestors or spirit guides or plants and mythological figures like fairies and leprechauns etcetera, that you actually start conversing with, that they come out and they present a wisdom to you. Things you didn’t see before, things you didn’t know before, or there was a veil that prevented you from getting there, and that’s what psychedelics do. They made this realm available to most any person who wants it and seeks it.
0:00:52.0 Paul Austin: Welcome to The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave. Audio mycelium connecting you to the luminaries and thought leaders of the psychedelic renaissance. We bring you illuminating conversations with scientists, therapists, entrepreneurs, coaches, doctors and shamanic practitioners, exploring how we can best use psychedelic medicine to accelerate personal healing, peak performance and collective transformation.
0:01:28.2 Paul Austin: Hey folks. It’s so good to have you here with us today. I am so excited to have Dr. Alexander Shester, a psychiatrist who has been immersed in the world of the psychedelic underground for over 20 years. He has now retired, lives in Carlsbad, just a stone’s throw away from my home in San Diego and is a mentee of the renowned psychologist, Ralph Metzner, who was at Harvard with both Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert back in the day. And so in this conversation with Alexander, we talk about his new book, Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism. Shamanism isn’t something that psychiatrists often go deep into, but Alexander is very unique because he’s participated in underground ceremonies for years and years and years and has worked with almost every plant medicine across the board in those context. So, he offers a very unique lens and perspective on visionary healing, the perspective of a psychiatrist who has been in the field for over 40 years now.
0:02:36.4 Paul Austin: It really was a pleasure to sit down in-person with Alexander just a few weeks ago here in San Diego. I always love those in-person conversations because the rapport that we’re able to establish and build is so much more fulfilling and nourishing. And we talked about how he got into the psychedelic space, why he decided to become a psychiatrist. We talk about the Jungian versus Freudian sort of lens and philosophy. We talk about Ralph Metzner, who Ralph was, why Alexander was part of Ralph Metzner’s circles and so much more. This was a really heartfelt conversation, it was a real pleasure and honor to be able to sit down with Alexander and hear about his story as both, a psychiatrist and a visionary explorer.
0:03:21.3 Paul Austin: Alexander Shester is a medical doctor, board-certified psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, who has over 30 years of experience studying and participating in guided vision quests using shamanic principles in nature settings. He recently published a book called Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism which is his personal firsthand memoirs using entheogens like Ayahuasca, Jurema, Psilocybin, San Pedro, Peyote, iboga, 5-MeO-DMT and more. This book also contains information about these plant medicines as well as synthetic entheogens like MDMA, and looks at them from a scientific, historical, mythological and cultural lens using shamanic principles to orient and organize a safe and profound psychonautical venture. It contains numerous color visionary artworks to amplify the psychedelic experience. The book is dedicated to his primary mentor, Ralph Metzner, with a foreword by the eminent psychedelic researcher, Charles Grob. Before we dive into today’s episode, a word from our sponsors.
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0:05:41.4 Paul Austin: This episode is sponsored by Beckley Retreats, a leading holistic wellbeing company that offers transformative self-development programs by leveraging the science-backed power of psychedelics in concert with supportive therapeutic modalities. As a trusted partner of Third Wave, we strongly recommend the upcoming retreats for Beckley in Jamaica, as well as many other locations. Head to go.beckleyretreats.com/thirdwave to book your transformational psilocybin program today.
0:07:14.9 Paul Austin: Alright, that’s it for now. Let’s go ahead and dive into this episode with Dr. Alexander Shester, I hope you enjoy our conversation together. So I am here with Dr. Alexander Shester an author, the author of a new book called Visionary Healing, Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism with the foreword by Charles Grob an esteemed researcher out of UCLA. Alexander, it’s great to have you on the podcast with us.
0:07:46.1 Alexander Shester: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. And you can shorten it to Alex if you’d like.
0:07:50.0 Paul Austin: You don’t mind Alex?
0:07:51.0 Alexander Shester: I love it.
0:07:51.9 Paul Austin: Okay, alright. I love doing… We’re doing this in-person, we’re in Encinitas at the moment. You live in Carlsbad.
0:07:58.8 Alexander Shester: Right.
0:08:00.1 Paul Austin: You’ve been a psychiatrist for…
0:08:01.9 Alexander Shester: Too many years.
0:08:02.1 Paul Austin: Too many years.
0:08:03.2 Alexander Shester: I retired at the end of 2015.
0:08:08.0 Paul Austin: And what has retirement brought you?
0:08:11.0 Alexander Shester: Creativity, passion, and lifted the veil of responsibility from my shoulders that I carried for many years as a doctor and a psychiatrist dealing with a lot of illness and suffering trying to help. So the real freedom came from that into this next phase of my life which I wanted to have some time to express myself artistically, musically and now with writing.
0:08:38.8 Paul Austin: And this is the first book that you’ve published?
0:08:40.3 Alexander Shester: It’s my first book that I’ve published, yeah.
0:08:42.8 Paul Austin: And the design of it is very much visionary art and…
0:08:49.0 Alexander Shester: It’s one of my art pieces.
0:08:51.9 Paul Austin: And you were working on one just before you came over today for the interview.
0:08:54.4 Alexander Shester: I’m working on another one right now in my study, yeah.
0:09:00.0 Paul Austin: What’s the creative process for visionary art? ‘Cause a little context, Pablo Amaringo, who we spoke about over lunch. He’s probably the best known artist for Ayahuasca-inspired visionary art. And we were just joking right before we started recording, it was like maybe he just drank a lot of Ayahuasca and you’re like, “I think it would be hard to paint if you’re in the midst of an experience.”
0:09:24.0 Alexander Shester: Well, in the midst of it for sure. ‘Cause too much gravity holds you down. But the visions can persist and after you’ve done a few sessions, they have a correspondence to a lot of the visionary art. And interestingly enough, he died but he has a visionary art center in Pucallpa, Peru, and he has a lot of visionary artists carrying on his tradition painting visionary art and many of which are images that I put in my book. ‘Cause I feel that it’s hard to sometimes describe the deep psychedelic experience in words and verbally and I think as we all know, an image is worth a thousand words. And so I wanted that to be the art part of this book, to be part of the whole expression of what one can experience by doing deep psychedelic work.
0:10:22.2 Paul Austin: And his was very inspired by Ayahuasca.
0:10:25.0 Alexander Shester: Yes. And he was a shaman also.
0:10:27.8 Paul Austin: Aah, okay.
0:10:29.0 Alexander Shester: He was both shamanistically inclined as well as an artist. So you’ll find a lot of people like that have an artistic predilection as well as what they have learned from Ayahuasca in terms of teaching and guiding others.
0:10:47.9 Paul Austin: And so for you, what medicines have been most instrumental in the visionary art process for you?
0:10:56.9 Alexander Shester: Well, I think they all are the ones that I emphasize in the book are Ayahuasca, Psilocybin, San Pedro cactus, and Peyote, and iboga, and these are the five main ones. And then Ayahuasca analog called Jurema which also is tryptamine derivative from Mimosa plant as well as the Syrian Rue bird seed which is the MAO inhibitor much like an Ayahuasca. The way they brew it would be mashing up together the banisteriopsis caapi vine, vine of the soul with Psychotria viridis. So, there are different Ayahuasca analogs that can be used to give the similar kinda visionary experience.
0:11:47.0 Alexander Shester: I found that they all really promote an interconnection with creativity, a visionary realm and what I’ve done in my past with the explorations have been a deep exploration of the psyche and the spirit world as represented in the cosmos as well as in the natural world, the Earth. And it’s put me more in touch with those things as a healer and a psychiatrist myself, wanted to do a lot of healing for myself that did not get completed through traditional therapy, psychotherapy or even Jungian analysis. ‘Cause to be a Jungian analyst, which I also became, you have to go through a deep analysis over a number of years. And it carried me quite a long way and it was very good, but it fell short of my own needs which was to explore more deeply an experiential realm, because so much of my life has been in my head, in my brain, in my mind, in my thoughts and I became quite good at that through scholarship and academia.
0:13:03.2 Alexander Shester: But I realized I was really missing an essential part of my being, connecting to the instinctual world, the reptilian world, the molecular world that exists within me. And having direct experiences of these realms rather than interpreting dreams and looking at this from afar, I could experience it and feel that real deep passion in me. And it brought me back to life and really helped heal with the depression, which is really a desynchronation of my instincts from my thoughts.
0:13:40.0 Paul Austin: So well said.
0:13:40.8 Alexander Shester: Can I take a breath, please? [laughter] And I spoke too long.
0:13:44.0 Paul Austin: No, no, no, no, no. The longer the better to some degree, because A, I’m just impressed that you could pronounce the full name of the caapi and the chacruna, the Ban… I can’t even do it.
0:13:58.9 Alexander Shester: Banisteriopsis caapi.
0:14:00.9 Paul Austin: And Psy… What’s the other one?
0:14:01.9 Alexander Shester: Psychotria viridis which is sometimes called chacruna.
0:14:06.0 Paul Austin: Chacruna.
0:14:06.7 Alexander Shester: The leaf which has the tryptamine in it, yeah. And the banisteriopsis caapi is the MAO inhibitor, the harmaline component of it that allows the tryptamine to not get metabolized so quickly by the brain. And therefore, it can rest on the serotonin receptors and whatever the gateway that it opens, it does.
0:14:30.2 Paul Austin: To cross the blood brain in that way, right? Yeah.
0:14:33.0 Alexander Shester: But there are a lot of tryptamine derivatives but this combination which is from the Amazon, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, gives a different quality of psychedelic experience that begins and centers in the gut and gets it to churn, so it’s a very visceral experience initially. But by using the techniques that I learned, shamanic techniques, you can actually through intention and will raise that energy to higher chakras, the heart, the third eye and cosmic realm as well as go down the spine, the tantric spine that is, into lower chakras, into the pelvic area and the anal area that connects one to the ground, the roots and the Earth. So this experience with Ayahuasca is a very visceral one, one that usually causes purgativo or you purge vomit and sometimes the other end. Also it’s a cleaning out procedure of both the physical part in the gastrointestinal system but also seems to have a psychological component that cleans out a lot of the psychological toxicities that get accumulated in each of us through the tribulations of life, living, trauma, suffering and drama and everything else.
0:16:06.0 Alexander Shester: So at the end of an experience like that, although it’s a little difficult when you get nauseated and have to purge, after that, a relaxation state occurs and the visuals really come on very beautiful and it’s impressive to watch until you are reminded that you have an intention that you’ve developed, which means that you have questions that you’re wanting to ask. There’s a bridge that goes from this world to that world, to the other world, to the world of the transpersonal realm of which you’re beginning to ask questions that were really hard… Have been veiled at least and hard to get access to during our consensus trance reality. So this allows us to have a bridge, the intention is to bridge, it allows us to go on to the transpersonal world and have meetings with remarkable allies, spirit guides, ancestors and things in the natural world that are hard to see in daily life. But you have to prepare yourself for a safe journey because it can be quite an experience and harrowing. It’s like going, I’m quoting Jimmy Hendrix, “To the outskirts of infinity that exists within each of us.” And it’s like going on a traveling adventure and you don’t know quite what you’re gonna see but the questions, the intentions that you have often are heard and responded to.
0:17:41.4 Paul Austin: Aldous Huxley talked about this, I believe, in The Doors of Perception where… And he wrote this in the 1950s. And his point was, over the span of industrialism from the 15th century up until really the 20th century, we had done… As a sort of global citizenry, we had explored every outer reach of the Earth itself. Now, one could argue that there’s still space and all these things beyond but in terms of earth itself, Huxley said, “We’ve done all of that exploration. Now, the greatest exploration that we have in front of us is the antipodes between antipodes of the mind.” And so the inner work, the inner exploration which Jung was so well known for, talking about the collective unconscious and these archetypes that exist. And kinda what you’re talking about with the plant medicines and Ayahuasca and iboga and Psilocybin and Huachuma, they act as that bridge then between, as you said, consensual reality and these transpersonal realms where it seems like anything becomes possible.
0:18:52.0 Alexander Shester: Yes, a lot of that used to be contained by religion. Churches, religions, temples, organized religions. But as Jung pointed out and that kinda dried up for a lot of people. It wasn’t enough to just listen to a rabbi, priest give wrote answers to the bigger questions in life. And he felt that the unconscious part of our life needed to come alive again to bring passion and that what religion couldn’t contain, that psychology was now the 20th century, now 21st century way of approaching the spiritual realm. And this is Jung’s contribution, because as we know, Freudian analysis and other forms of psychotherapy are not involved with the spirituality. So to me, Jung was a very, one of the early pioneers of blending psychology with spirituality as being a truth that exists within each of us that we have to find if we are to fully manifest our lives and bring back that sense of spirituality through direct experience, rather than through the words of other people, and laws and rules.
0:20:21.3 Paul Austin: Gnosis is a term that is…
0:20:25.2 Alexander Shester: Right. Gnosis. Direct experience. Yeah, direct knowledge.
0:20:27.1 Paul Austin: Direct knowledge.
0:20:28.0 Alexander Shester: Right.
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0:22:19.8 Paul Austin: So one of your teachers was Ralph Metzner.
0:22:23.3 Alexander Shester: Yes.
0:22:23.9 Paul Austin: And I’d love for you just to tell us a little bit about who Ralph was, what you learned from him, maybe how he changed the trajectory of your own path and your own life, bring us a little bit into that story.
0:22:40.0 Alexander Shester: That’s a long question, a longer answer. Ralph Metzner, for those who have not heard of them, started the psychedelic research back in the 1960s at Harvard in the psilocybin studies, and he worked… The three people, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass who was Richard Alpert and the youngest of the bunch, Ralph Metzner were doing research at Harvard, and they each had their different trajectories. As we know with Tim Leary, he turned on, tuned in and really dropped out. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass and very powerful friend of Ralph’s too, all through his life. Ralph had his own path and he continued to study various forms of meditation, energy, life energy experiences with yoga. And started resuming psychedelics and started these visionary circles, he called them, which were for the deeper exploration, the use of psychedelics as medicines for healing and for visioning, healing being usually referring to things in the past or the recent past that we needed to deal with childhood stuff as well as the dramas of relationships and daily life that need healing, as well as visioning, which means that when we’re feeling stuck in our lives, which many of us do find on multiple times in our life that allowed one to get a higher perspective. Get up, climb a tree, get you right on a bird and see some perspective about the future.
0:24:34.3 Alexander Shester: In each of the thing, the past and the future, whatever lessons or insights we got, have to be brought back to the present, because that’s where the action is with each of our lives. So those are the insights that he really promoted and gained. And what prompted one of the reasons I wanted to write this book, was I work with him for over 20 years, doing multiple visionary quest in different natural environments in nature, usually within a house or a hut, sometimes outdoors, but in natural settings, the desert, the mountains, various things like that, or retreat centers, where we would spend… Before we took the psychedelic, we spent a whole day alone, each us in the group, finding our own experience, developing an intention and connecting with the natural world. And of course, this somehow informed our intention as well as when we had the experience with the psychedelic that promoted our nature-relatedness and made us deeper, got us deeper into the natural world in our environment and our ecosystem that each of us live in. So anyway, he’s, with his recent renaissance of the psychedelic band wagon, I call it [chuckle]
0:26:02.2 Alexander Shester: Most of the stuff has been in research institutions, universities and all that, and Michael Pollan’s famous book, I think brought out the importance of psychedelics to the collective population. However, he’s not mentioned really, or emphasized in any of Pollan’s works or a lot of other people right now. And so I felt that the powerful teaching city and he’s a brilliant man who was a scholar in mythology, history, not only psychedelics, but story telling, he was a shamanic drumming and vocalizing, he would chanting, he would bring all these things to the circle. And he was, I feel largely ignored as a real pioneer of the psychedelic renaissance, and I felt the need to bring his teachings to life by my experiences with him and with these various powerful medicines I mentioned, and how it changed my life and helped me.
0:27:13.6 Alexander Shester: So they did finally create a distinguished professorship for Ralph Metzner, Dr. Metzner at UC San Francisco, my medical school alma mater for doing psychedelic research, a matter of fact, later this month they are gonna have a dedication of this…
0:27:37.4 Paul Austin: This is Robin Carhart-Harris, was he…
0:27:40.3 Alexander Shester: Robin Carhart-Harris is the main person in charge of the center there at UC San Francisco. But to honor Ralph Metzner. And so I think I’m trying to bring his wisdom to the light and all that, he wasn’t, like he wasn’t into microdosing as far as I know, which I think is a whole another branch of psychedelic side I don’t know much about, but I find very intriguing and appealing what you’re an expert in, but Ralph was very much, the difference going really deep into the psyche and helping. He was a true archetypal healer, I felt he was wise and I felt he was humble, and I think he was, those things are to me the essence of healing, you know?
0:28:32.6 Paul Austin: And his focus, and maybe you can help add a little bit more nuance of this, I know he wrote a book on psilocybin mushrooms, was a lot of the work that you did in these visionary circles with explicitly psilocybin mushrooms, or did he have a way of working with other medicines as well as part of that visionary process?
0:28:53.9 Alexander Shester: He worked with all of the medicines that I mentioned, he worked with psilocybin, often augmented with Syrian Rue to keep it in your system longer and to intensify the effect of the psilocybin, and we did quite a number of those journeys, but he also worked a lot with the San Pedro cactus. Again, he sent Pedro cactuses of mescaline containing cactus. It’s interesting, legal. You can buy it at Home Depot. I’ve got it growing in my garden, it’s a beautiful plant with beautiful flowers, but you have to take an awful alot of it to feel anything.
0:29:35.7 Alexander Shester: So he would often augment San Pedro with small microdoses, not microdoses, medium doses of LSD or psilocybin or 2C-B synthetic hallucinogen at smaller doses that would activate the cactus and bring out the mescaline visions, because we know that the other cactus has powerful mescaline visions as Peyote. Ralph didn’t use Peyote in his circles because he felt it really misappropriated what the Native Americans were trying to do, and uses as a sacrament as well as the fact that there is a depleting resource of everyone harvesting Peyote with development and the whole ecosystem for Peyote became verified. So he honored that request not to use Peyote, although prior to my work with Ralph, I work with a Peyote medicine man from Shiprock, New Mexico, and we did a number of visionary circles. This is in the 80s before I hooked up or met Ralph. So I had experience with these mescaline visions beforehand, which are very, as you probably know, very heart-centered, very emotional and heart-centered, but also put you in touch with the creator, which a direct connection there that you could experience, that was life. And, so he used San Pedro and then he used Ayahuasca quite a bit, and occasionally, he would bring iboga from Africa, which comes from the bark of the tabernanthe iboga shrub that grows in Africa, and he made it into a medicine, a liquid medicine, usually with a little alcohol to extract it, and we used that several times, and I’d have to say that kind of…
0:31:42.5 Alexander Shester: It’s a little too much for me. It kind of blew me away. It made me so ecstatic and high, it didn’t come down for a day or two. So, it was a little bit too energetic for my liking, but very, very visionary and very powerful. And I wrote about my experiences with each of these medicines, what it’s like to have them and go through these deep journey, presenting my issues that I needed for healing, and the areas in my life that I felt stuck primarily in work, but I felt dried up and tired of hearing all the suffering and pain and angry patients and people that were disrespectful, these negative aspects of being a psychiatrist and a healer that we all have to put up with. But those things would clog up my bones, and I have to somehow have a way to release them and get these insights of how to do it. But the most important thing, and I think for people who do deep psychological work as well as microdosing what they do repeatedly, is the difference between insight, creativity, and transformation.
0:33:00.7 Alexander Shester: The insights come quickly and are powerful and are wonderful, and you get your neural pathways out of your stack loops, you see different things, different directions to go, revisit your past traumas and can view them from a different perspective, this time from an adult perspective, get in touch with the radiant child that was lost and dismembered as a child, the wounded child sometimes persists in trauma and doesn’t tend to go away. But with this, we’d bring this back into our present day situation and the question that came from that is, okay, so you’ve seen God, you’ve seen your ancestors, you’ve seen the natural world and all its beauty and arrows, but what’s changed. What’s the price of tea in China? How is this gonna practically change your life?
0:34:04.1 Alexander Shester: So that’s where the transformation comes in, that’s where they need psychedelically trained therapists, coaches, guides to help people integrate the lessons that were learned before they’re forgotten. Because more often than not, a few weeks to a couple of months after these incredible journeys, you return back to status quo with all your problems, all your issues, and you say, “Well, that was fun, that was a nice experience, but it was just a psychedelic fantasy.” So to make those changes of transformation, that’s the hard work and what people are having difficulty doing, and that’s the true same of psychotherapy, the difference between what a therapist gives insight to a patient and what they do with it, that’s the bottleneck. People don’t change that easily.
0:34:56.2 Paul Austin: Which is why, even in the 50s and 60s, when psychedelics were starting to be used in psychotherapy, they were seen as such a breakthrough, because all of a sudden, not only were their insights that came through, but now what we’re learning is because of the neuroplasticity became much easier to actually shift behaviors rather than staying stuck in the same sort of ruminating loops, and the question that I would have for you, it comes into the realm of community, because I know that you said you had done a lot of… You’d worked with Ralph for 20 years. There were these visionary circles, medicine circles, as part of it, what for you was the value of the people and community that you met in those circles to help you on your process of transformation?
0:35:46.2 Alexander Shester: Well, the way Ralph would run as circles is after we imbibed or took the medicine, we would lay down, he’d play some really beautiful music, which is really an important part of a psychedelic journey, no matter who does it, I think at least. It’s like a boat that carries you down the river, and that you can float on while you’re processing whatever information. But I think… Say that again. Would you want me to…
0:36:21.3 Paul Austin: The value of community so…
0:36:23.6 Alexander Shester: The value of community was that after we go into our own visionary state for a while, he would have a sit up and face the central altar that we created, usually a prayer rug with objects or poems or things we’d bring to put in there to create the sacred space, and this sharing connected us to what other people were going through, gave him and the sitters an opportunity to make sure that everyone was trying to stay with the intention or we’re not getting lost in the reveries and all the different tracks you can take in a psychedelic experience, but to really focus on what that intention was and remind us of that, and to connect as a small community, and I found that that was very powerful, that we did rounds where we would go down the individual come up and sit up and share, and usually when we were really in the initial psychedelic phase, it was hard to say words and verbalize, and he would not want people to do that because it would intellectualize an experience. So he would have us vocalize, like sing, open up our throats and sing from wherever we wanted to, sounds that felt like what we were experiencing at the time, and we’d hear all these.
0:37:44.6 Alexander Shester: Everyone was different with their vocalizations and really created a sense of bonding, community, that was heartfelt. And then as the rounds continued, we had began to verbalize a little bit more but short. And then when everything was over the next day we would have an integration around where we would actually speak what our intention was and what we learned as part of the first step of integration. And I found that sense of community was very powerful, except, there were some circles where I work with the Spirit Eagle, where he’d have 20 or more people there in the circle, and people didn’t quite get it, they were run very differently, although we had our shamanic drumming and chanting and all that stuff when people spoke they went on and on, and when you go around and do a round with 20 people talking about trauma, I tended to get lost and a little bit fatigued. So too much community may not be great, just enough people, 8 to 10, maybe 12 of Voyagers, I think was a good size, and part of it was respecting the structure that Ralph set up. Whatever Shaman or leader creates a structure, it has to be confidential because it’s still illegal, but also we have to respect the boundaries, because often people would get carried away with wanting to have the entertainment value of a psychedelic and go off on a hike, strip down, and that was a no no. We couldn’t really do that.
0:39:26.1 Alexander Shester: So, you had to try to contain that. The book I wrote, though, is how to create a circle or how to choose the right type of circle for each individual. Sometimes Ralph’s circles were a little too structured for me, but they were different from time to time. Other times they weren’t that structured. But I like sort of an intermediate where he would remind us through storytelling and mythology what are… And how that related to what we were experiencing at that time. Often there was a synchronicity between what was going on on our inner lives with the stories that he would tell because he was a master of mythology. I also, the book, I presented a lot of the meditations that you can use with or without psychedelic medicine. So they’re good for daily practice, on how to tune into the natural world, how to tune into your psyche. And if you are wanting to experience psilocybin or, psilocybin or San Pedro or whatever on your own, that this would give you an orientation of how to be, especially if scary shadow material emerged and you get a little bit tense and all that, how to come back to the center point and…
0:40:50.6 Alexander Shester: So the book really, I think, helps people who wanna take individual journeys who don’t have access to the circles. But unfortunately, as you know, some of these circles have gotten big, have become popular and it’s infiltrated by really good psychedelic coaches and therapists who have had the experience. You have to have the experience or you can’t do it. Aldous Huxley said that and so did Albert Hofmann.
0:41:23.0 Paul Austin: Hofmann.
0:41:23.5 Alexander Shester: Yeah. They both felt you have to experience it if you’re going to promote it and all that. So there’s a lot of people who want to get on the bandwagon now and so much is going on with research at research institutions. That’s where when I left doing these journeys and all that, I felt when the time was done for me, I had a choice of either getting a little bit more, going back a little bit more academically and doing research and that was not where my interest laid. I was still really trying to just stay with being a healer, being an outsider looking in or rather than right in the center of being an insider. But most of the researchers what people went to like Charles Grob, for instance, went in to become a very prominent psychedelic researcher for MDMA, psilocybin for cancer, terminal cancer and Ayahuasca, he went down to Brazil and studied a lot of the people first hand who were using it in the Ayahuasca churches, the Santo Daime, the União do Vegetal. So he had this direct experience and interestingly enough, he’s a professor of child psychiatry at UCLA Harbor. But he’s been given FDA approval to do this research and legal research in these things, and is considered very highly even by the chairman of the department. So you can see how it works.
0:42:54.8 Paul Austin: He’s very much a prominent voice and has been publicly for years now. One of the early, in fact, I met his daughter in 2017, I met her at a conference, the last MAPS Conference that they had in Oakland in 2017 and she ended up writing a feature on my microdosing coaching for Rolling Stone, which was sort of a cool little coincidence. So I’ve never met Charles myself, but he’s… I know he’s doing a lot of important work on the research elements and he’s been a prominent voice in the space for a long time.
0:43:33.4 Alexander Shester: Yeah, I was fortunate that I knew him and work with him during these circles with Ralph for many years. Got to know him and we knew each other, and then I asked him if he’d write a foreword for my book if he felt it was worthy. And so I sent him an initial copy before it was published, and he liked it and I just sent him a hardback copy and he was raving about it. He liked it. I’m not trying to promote myself, but he seemed to like it and Ralph’s wife, Cathy Coleman, wrote the preface for the book and she’s also a psychedelic researcher at CIIS up in the Bay Area and she liked it too. So I found that…
0:44:19.6 Paul Austin: You got a lot of thumbs up.
0:44:22.1 Alexander Shester: I got a few thumbs up ’cause I never really… You never know when you write something how it’s going to take or whether it’s worthwhile or not, but if they liked it then it’s good enough for me.
0:44:32.7 Paul Austin: So tell us a little bit about, and you’ve hinted at this here and there, but why did you choose to become a psychiatrist, way back when. And how did your work with psychedelics influence the evolution of your practice, your perspective, how you went about your work?
0:44:54.2 Alexander Shester: Well, I went to medical school with the idea of being a cardiovascular surgeon.
0:45:00.9 Paul Austin: Yeah.
0:45:03.1 Alexander Shester: It was in my blood even since a young 10-year-old wanted me a surgeon and all that ’cause I had a surgery as a kid and it got me all interested in medicine. So when I got accepted to UC San Francisco, I chose that one over a couple others, but I went in to want to be a surgeon, but I got disillusioned by the type of mindset of a lot of surgeons, the competitiveness, the arrogance, and I think it’s a very great feel and I kind of miss not doing that, but I also was more philosophically inclined and artistically inclined and I wanted more balance in my life, and to be a surgeon you had to really make it pretty much full-time 24/7. So I wanted to get together more the creative, philosophical, I like reading good literature and things like that and bring it in and meld it with science, which I also really loved, and sort of evolve in that direction.
0:46:17.4 Alexander Shester: But I went through some divorce during my medical school days and that turned me upside down in terms of my values and made me rethink everything. And I became interested in the psyche. I first became interested in Jung at that point, and I went on and decided I was hoping to become a brain science with all the philosophy and stuff and become a psychiatrist, only to find out that psychiatry was more interested in neurotransmitters and brain chemistry and how that affected all the psychopathologies and the emphasis was shifting away from analysis and psychotherapy to more medicalizing it into neurotransmitters. Very important to learn, very important for me because I used medicines in my practice with patients, however, it was very reductive and limiting and I realized the difference between being intelligent and having consciousness.
0:47:21.9 Alexander Shester: And consciousness was much more appealing to me to study that and to be involved in that. Plus, I had in my youth I had some adventures and misadventures with LSD trips during the 60s when it was all happening, and that kind of unfurled my brain into thinking differently and all that. So I thought that becoming a Jungian analyst would balance me but as I mentioned it became too intellectual for me and I needed to get back to the direct experience, the natural world and try to get to the essence of what was depressing me, which I found through psychedelics and it was really helpful. So I was fortunate enough to be invited by a friend and interviewed by Ralph who I got invited to the circles and started working with him. This was after my work with Peyote and Spirit Eagle. And just found that that took me into a very… A deeper level of experience than I’d ever had before and it confirmed Jung. It didn’t contradict anything that I learned.
0:48:37.4 Alexander Shester: Jung believed himself that for schizophrenia there must be some unknown circulating chemical that caused it, but he didn’t know what it was. So he wasn’t opposed to psychopharmacology, he just wasn’t known at the time. And I think Jung just, he was a transpersonal person. If you look at his painting…
0:49:00.5 Paul Austin: He was a shaman in some ways with the red book and the paintings and…
0:49:03.0 Alexander Shester: His paintings, his mandalas, his studying other cultures, his travels to Africa, Egypt, India, Taos Pueblo to really get some confirmation about the collective unconscious from a non-White European perspective, intellectual perspective. He actually walked his talk and did that. And I think I found that intriguing and I found that a lot of my own depression was, I didn’t walk my talk. And I got disconnected from my instinct, the reptilian, mammalian, emotional part of my brain from the thought processes as I mentioned. And I think that these medicines reconnected me because when I became a reptile, in cold environments they’re not very functional ’cause they’re cold-blooded. But in nature they had a purpose and intention to survive, to procreate, to eat and so that was a part of the brain that I felt was very important to feel alive in your day-to-day behavior and wherever you work. And what it did to psychedelics is reconnect my instinct, the instinctual level, my body level to my mind level. And this connection, this balance I think allowed me to become creative and to deal with my isolation as being a psychiatrist, being different than the middle of the road crowd and come to accept who I was instead of trying to be the good psychiatrist.
0:50:53.5 Paul Austin: Right. Fitting into a model that did not work for you.
0:50:57.7 Alexander Shester: Fitting into one mold. It didn’t work for me. And I’m a very practical person. If it works, stay with it. If it doesn’t work, keep moving. Keep moving, keep moving, and I see that as a metaphor for living is to keep moving until the day you die.
0:51:15.2 Paul Austin: Keep moving, keep digging. And I think the thing that you’re touching on, I won’t go so far as to say that psychiatry is broken in terms of the mainstream approach but there’s the Freudian, I feel like most mainstream psychiatry has been built on sort of a Freudian perspective. And what I’ve seen time and time again is those who have somewhat of a background in Jung and they come into this have a different perspective about let’s say the mind-body connection and all these things that we’re talking about today and I’d love to hear your thoughts on kind of the way that I would frame this question is do you think the integration of visionary medicine will make psychiatry obsolete?
0:52:01.5 Alexander Shester: Not in my lifetime.
0:52:04.3 Paul Austin: Okay.
0:52:05.5 Alexander Shester: I think psychiatry is looking for the new savior for mental health. Right now it happens to be ketamine, which works in a different neurotransmitter system. And also with these studies, MAPS and all these things with psilocybin and MDMA, I think there’s a lot of future. I think the future of psychiatry is gonna have to integrate those newer medicines. And the psychedelic medicines, and fantasy, empathogens also into daily practice. My concern is that most psychiatrists these days are not people I would wannna go to personally for my own healing because they’re smart and they’re very good with medicines and those can be very helpful for half the people. One thing I became clear as a psychiatrist prescribing medicines is that maybe… Especially with my emphasis in specialization and affective disorders, depression and anxiety, is that the antidepressants, SSRIs, SNRIs would maybe help a third of the people, although they have to put up with side effects often.
0:53:20.9 Alexander Shester: But another third of the people may get partial improvement and then another third or 25% to a third of the people would be treatment resistant and you’d have to make all these pile one medicine on top of another to see if you can get them to function, because the basic practical goal for me as a psychiatrist was to improve functionality in people that were not functioning socially, at work, relationships and having any pleasure in life. And these are people who are pretty severely depressed. I didn’t deal with the walking wounded as much as I did with severely depressed people, so it was quite a challenge for me. The psychedelic experiences, I never brought them into my practice because they’re illegal, unethical according to the powers that be, and as a medical doctor with a license, you’re highly scrutinized, so I kept it very secretive to myself.
0:54:20.9 Alexander Shester: But what I’ve changed in me from all this, my perceptions, was that when I came back to my day-to-day work I was able to intuitively just go deeper and quickly into the person’s issues and problems and be able to really understand what darkness is about. One thing about depression is you understand images of darkness. And when a person is very depressed and in a dark place, when they know and you can empathize and relate to their darkness ’cause of your own experience, that depression became a window into me understanding them. Cheerleading or slaps on the back, “Oh it’s gonna be okay,” that doesn’t really help a person when they’re deeply depressed. So these psychedelics really allowed me to promote, number one, besides re-energizing my hope and my motivation to continue work over many years, it really allowed me to work more deeply with people and they saw me as a little different than the other psychiatrists that they went and saw.
0:55:31.9 Alexander Shester: But for… But I had my… Like I say, as I was told once before by one of my analysts, if you wanna take credit for your successes, you have to take credit for your failures. And so the thing about working with people on a day-to-day basis is you learn from your patients, you learn from them and they can see right through you. If you try to BS them, they’ll call you on it. So it’s a very humbling experience. You’re always being thrown back on yourself, they mirror a lot of your stuff and you have to come to terms with who you really are and what you’re trying to do. That’s one of the things that makes the profession difficult but also sacred for me.
0:56:18.0 Paul Austin: And I love how you ended that because I think the sacredness has been really ripped out of medicine, as there’s been an emphasis on, specifically with psychiatry, hey, just take this pill, and it’s become a little… It’s not shamanic in that way. And that was sort of the next question that I had is, what can shamanism teach us about the self that might be helpful for any psychiatrist or psychotherapist or anyone else that’s listening to this?
0:56:54.3 Alexander Shester: Well, in one word, orientation into the psyche. And one thing that when you look at the research protocols which are done in clinical settings, not nature settings, and they don’t use shamanic orientations or ideas, that’s what leaves me a little cold even with what’s going on with the present-day research but they’re researching what is safe and whether these medicines can work or not with these various psychiatric disorders. But shamanism, where it helped me and what Ralph did, was to bring this into our modern culture, into psychology. And as you may know, shamanism is not a religion. So you’ve got Christians, Buddhists, Jewish people, Islamic people who are open-minded and pagans, even atheists who can benefit from this. It doesn’t matter what your inclination spiritually is, but it’s a way of orienting one toward instead of believing in faith from what other people do and say, and learning the dogma of your particular faith or religion, that you have a direct experience.
0:58:13.8 Alexander Shester: And this is what the shamans of old, in indigenous cultures, both, extinct and extant, have learned to try to put their clients, their patients into having a direct experience where the teachings come from the plant or the chemical, synthetic chemical depending. And those were the teachers, not the medicine man, not the person, not the guru, who holds all the answers to all the big questions in life, nobody has those answers, and we project that on to a guru or to a shaman, we disempower ourselves because we don’t… What we have to do is learn that we have our own power. One unit of it at least. And if we give that away, you’re just giving that power over to someone else, a priest, a Shaman, whatever. So the idea is to find that psychedelic, whatever the medicine is, to find the answers. And what amazes me, ’cause I don’t like to say I’m wise, because thats I’ve been inflated to say something like that, is when you encounter these things within yourself, ancestors or spirit guides or plants and mythological figures like Ferries and Leprechaun, etcetera, that you actually start conversing with. That they come out and they present a wisdom to you, the things you didn’t see before, things didn’t know before, or were there was a veil that prevented you from getting there. That’s what psychedelics do. They made this realm available to most, any person who wants it and seeks it versus… Well.
1:00:07.5 Paul Austin: Versus having to go through an authority figure versus having it to be translated… There’s an intelligence in these plants that…
1:00:14.4 Alexander Shester: Well, to find that there is an intelligence in the plants, is it in the plants, in the chemical, or is it in me, or is it in the transpersonal world? But to find that when you wake up from this and come back to consensus reality, that there was something wise that came to you that you can actually take back and integrate and do something with, that was remarkable to say, I didn’t know I had that wisdom ’cause it’s really, everything is within yourself. I mean, ultimately, we don’t know that for sure, but there’s consciousness beyond ourselves, but ultimately whatever comes… I didn’t know I had that wisdom. Where did that come from? But it’s really in our work.
1:01:00.7 Paul Austin: Well, it’s ancient. There’s sort of in an amnesia that happens when we live in everyday life, when we live in these industrial square boxes, so to say. And so something that you’ve touched on again and again is this importance of nature-relatedness, because when we get outside of this sort of domestication that we’ve been raised with, when we work with plant medicines, when we spend time in nature, When we go into these different shamanic practices, all of a sudden there’s a remembrance of this really primal wild part of ourselves that’s been stuffed down for… I mean, not only in our lifetimes, but our ancestors that have come before us for maybe three generations, five generations, seven generations right, we as a Western people, we are very disconnected from that primal indigenous shamanic wisdom in many ways.
1:01:47.7 Alexander Shester: Yeah, I used to take Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, my Jewish ancestors, on a motorcycle ride with me… While I was… Of course, when I was in a trance state, not really riding in the motorcycle, and they would ask me about, “What’s going on in life, what’s your life about?” And as well, “I’m having this problem that… Well, how did you deal with it?” I would ask them. There’s this reciprocity, it occurs between ancestors and your present life that goes back and forth, they wanna know what’s going on so they can stay alive, and we wanna know how they deal with it, and I think that’s very, very powerful thing. But getting back to nature relatedness, my other book… [chuckle]
1:02:35.1 Paul Austin: That you’re working on, right? It’ll be out in a couple of years. Now with the retirement, you have all the…
1:02:41.1 Alexander Shester: Nevermind retirement, right?
1:02:45.4 Paul Austin: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
1:02:47.4 Alexander Shester: Nature-relatedness is interesting because the lessons from nature are very important, and one of the things that one has to ask with psychedelic consciousness is to change your values. Does it make you more moral? Does it make you have a different kind of value system where you appreciate the earth where you come from? And I think these key words that when you see what’s going on in nature, whether you experience it or whether you read about it, are things like symbiosis, mutuality, reciprocity that occurs in the natural world, that it all is this interconnected ecosystem that keeps things alive. The brain of the earth may be the mycelium of the mushrooms, who knows? The guy, consciousness or whatever you wanna call it somehow is a dance of… Adaptability is another word. And that has to do with survival, and survival, when you see that under the influence, you see the survival of this planet, you’re the cries of nature, you become aware of it, it’s painful as a human being to get that in touch with and say, “Can you do something about it?” And one of my visionary states, I met the Queen of the rainforest, which is powerful, and it felt real, and she embraced me and said, “If you love me, I will love you.”
1:04:27.3 Alexander Shester: “So if you serve in a good way with me and help me keep the world earth alive, I will give you the love that you need in life.” And she embraced me and she gave me a kiss, and from that she put a seed from her into my mouth and then said, go plant the seed and take care of it. And let the tree grow and take care of it, and take care of the earth, and I will continue to love you and protect you.” That’s a very powerful statement. Maybe it’s a fantasy, but it was very powerful at the time, and did it change my values? Yes, it did. I have to become more aware of my ecosystem or waste pollutants, all the things, and as you mention our amnesia of the natural world.
1:05:22.5 Alexander Shester: Nature deficit disorder, they call it, children are not being raised in nature, but in classrooms and buildings, and there is a dissociation, they don’t know what nature is, and so they don’t obviously value it, and that’s one of the things I think that all of the psychedelics that we talked about, all of them have… All the roads lead to the natural world.
1:05:50.7 Paul Austin: It brings us back into a relationship with the wild, with the primal, with the undomesticated, and for me, it was many, 12, 13 years ago when I started working with psychedelics, this was the core teaching that arose was, there’s so much to learn from that ancient primal wisdom, and the reason you feel miserable or depressed or anxious is because you’re out of touch with it or you’re disconnected from it, or you’ve forgotten about it, and so again and again, the teaching was, Come back into the woods. Take care of the earth. And in doing that and in teaching about that, that is, it creates an optimism and a hope for the future.
1:06:40.6 Alexander Shester: Well, as a young man, you, not me, I’m an old man, your wives beyond your ears, if you did this 10, 15 years ago, you reached for the secret too soon as [1:06:41.6] ____ Pink Floyd said. But it’s wonderful that you’ve carried on and are doing what you’re doing. The other important thing, I don’t know if we mentioned, is the teachings of the shadow, ’cause everyone wants to be enlightened, everyone wants to go straight up to Paradise, paradiso, and you want a short circuit that… From new age, whatever. But really, as we’ve talked in the past, this idea of facing your pain, being pulled down from behind in [1:07:37.4] ____ cloment Endarkenment into facing the pain which most people would like to, would prefer to avoid and not go into a journey into hell, the Inferno. It’s an important thing that you have to deal with some of that energy and come to terms with it, you can never fully integrate to shadow, but you can begin that process through life, and shadow is usually experiences what we project on to other negative things that we don’t think are attributed to us that we put on to other people groups, parties or whatever, but this is an important teaching, and as a lot of fairy tales go, you have to win over the dark witch before they will realize that you are worthy to go into another realm of the positive realm, whether it’s in Norell, whether Baba Yaga of Russian fairy tales or Snow White and all that kind of…
1:08:36.3 Alexander Shester: So you have to come to terms with the Dark Mother, the dark essence there, and that’s the part that’s missing where people don’t want to face. It’s hard to do before you’re 40, but it possible possible you are a case in point.
1:08:57.8 Paul Austin: Robert Bly, who we talked about over lunch when we met, he wrote this book called The Little Book on The Human Shadow, and the way that he phrased it is, a lot of maturity is eating the shadow, it’s actually going into that darkness and bit by bit eating it, because in that is actually where energy and vitality and life comes from. It’s the same sort of metaphor with mushrooms, the reason mushrooms are so powerful and the reason that I think many in a western culture have been sort of not wanting to touch them is because of their association with death and the shadow and darkness, and yet I literally eating the mushroom, eating the shadow, we have all of these teachings that come forward. And just to wrap this up, like what we were talking about earlier, that’s where the importance of a coach, a therapist, a guide comes in, because if you feel safe and if you’re in a container, then what psychedelics do is they actually, they make it much easier to confront those aspects of yourself as long as you are capable of surrendering.
1:10:03.1 Alexander Shester: Surrendering is the keyword, letting go, otherwise you’re gonna have a lot of anxiety during a trip, a journey. And letting go is the only way you can transcend it. And as you know, with mushrooms, they can be pretty mischievous. You’re not sweet and nice, they can… But they care about you, they wanna inform you by tricking you and humbling you, but they wanna teach, and as you know, Maria Sabina thought they were the ultimate teacher teaching guide.
1:10:40.6 Paul Austin: So Dr. Alexander Chester, author of Visionary Healing: Psychedelic Medicine and Shamanism. Any final words of wisdom to share with our listeners before we send them off on their day?
1:10:56.8 Alexander Shester: Be careful who you choose to work with, that they’re experienced, develop your intention and create a sacred space for you, whether you’re alone or in the group, ’cause the outside influences can get into you, and whether you’re microdosing or macrodosing in-between dosing, you can learn a lot of important things in your life. And the most important thing is to enjoy the experience. When darkness comes up, you can change that by changing your mindset, changing your music, changing the situation a little bit. So it’s difficult as it is, it’s harrowing the experience, it’s very worthwhile, and I think has a large future for psychological healing as well as having a mystical experience, which is usually in the past only open to very few mystics. Now it’s open to all of us.
1:12:01.7 Alexander Shester: And the basic idea is, the bottom line is, does it change your values so that we can continue endorsing and loving the earth? Nature is very central, not in a sexual sense, and in that loving arrow sense of trying to connect us, and we’re all part of nature, and we have to remember that, not forget it. So that’s a few words of whatever… [chuckle] I’m not gonna use the word, but something…
1:12:35.2 Paul Austin: Well, I’ll call it a few words of wisdom from Alex. Alex, thank you for joining us.
1:12:39.3 Alexander Shester: Well, thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
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