The Future Of Psychedelic Retreats


Episode 52

Martijn Schirp

Martijn Schirp, founder of High Existence and the psychedelic retreats ‘Synthesis’ and ‘Apotheosis,’ joins us to talk about psychedelic ceremony and personal development. Martijn explains why he decided to set up his own style of psychedelic ceremony, and how they differ from more traditional, ritualistic frameworks. He shares with us his hopes for the future of psychedelics and their integration into mainstream society.

Podcast Highlights

  • Martijn’s journey into the world of psychedelics
  • The reasons why traditional psychedelic ceremonies are not for everyone
  • What research needs to be done to help us to optimize psychedelic retreats

Podcast Transcript

00:29 Paul Austin: Welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast. We have a bit of an unconventional podcast for you today. I'm here with Martijn. Welcome to the show.

00:40 Martijn Schirp: Thank you so much for having me, brother. It's really nice to talk to you again.

00:43 PA: Let's dig into what you're experiencing right now. You just finished up a five-day retreat in Costa Rica. Tell us a little bit about why'd you hold the retreat in Costa Rica?

00:53 MS: Like a year ago, I attended the retreat myself and it was so life-changing. But it also was organized by a good friend of mine, and that showed me, "Hey, I can actually do this." And I always wanted to create a retreat because I've done quite a few Buddhist retreats. I've done quite a few plant medicine retreats, yoga, shamanistic, tantra. Sometimes these practices were not completely integrated or there were elements missing. Running HighExistence, I came across so many wisdom traditions and so many things that I personally liked, and we talked about it in our community, that I felt like if we can maybe bring these things together in one retreat, we can have five days of big experiences and have one of the most amazing time of our lives. I came back from Costa Rica last year with that idea, shared with my team. It was a bit too extreme for them in the beginning, but they warmed up to the idea. We started planning it about six months ago. So we had 14 people coming up to Costa Rica to the Osa Peninsula, which is one of the most biodiverse, still, wild, tropical forest in this part of the continent. It was a blast. We had a San Pedro shaman coming in, we had breath work, we had yoga, we had meditation. We did an all-night Yagé ceremony, and all the people started to collaborate and co-create. So it was like not really top-down hierarchical thing, which you sometimes experience with shamans, but it's complete co-participation.

02:28 PA: And you put so much time and effort into planning this retreat. And you pretty much pulled off two retreats in the span of a month. I mean, we did Synthesis in mid-April, where we had 25 participants come in for Psilocybin truffles. And that was a much different retreat than the one you did. What did you call it, Apotheosis?

02:47 MS: Apotheosis, yeah. The making of the divine being, basically, or reaching your highest potential. This was way more spiritual, way more esoteric, if you will. Even though it was about people scientifically-minded, but it had way more spiritual practices. And Synthesis was actually the best preparation I could have ever done for this to smaller groups, less complexity, made a strong team, way more guides per person, as well as medical supervision. So all that made me feel we could step up into this role as a facilitator. So yeah, I really... I had a blast at both retreats. But yeah, for very different purposes for sure.

03:39 PA: Yeah, very different purposes. And this is something that we've spoken about as well with, for example, the publication of Michael Pollan's recent book. And it's so funny, we had spoken about this in Amsterdam. And we're seeing this rise of interest. The first wave of retreats, which have largely been Ayahuasca retreats, have been much more oriented towards, we could say, early adopters. People who want to experience some level of either shamanistic or neo-shamanistic experience. I'd love to just hear what has been your experience with Ayahuasca and other plant medicines in a retreat setting, and how did those experiences inform your vision for what could be improved in a more modern, western psychedelic retreat?

04:24 MS: Basically, I started out with plant medicine ceremonies, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca about 8 years ago. The first time was Michipicoten Islands, and that changed my life. I had one of the most difficult, challenging experience to date. It was so necessary that we confronted parts of myself that had to be faced and I had to integrate. So I'm deeply grateful for that work. I also wondered after that experience, why did it have that intensity, why it was so strong. It was sometimes difficult for me to connect with the shamans because they didn't speak my language, they didn't have my cosmology. And I felt that integration was quite difficult for that, or on some level, I felt I had to take on this worldview that didn't necessarily... Was incongruent with the rest of my beliefs. And so I started experimenting other traditions. So I went to this new-age setting, which was nice, and they integrated some kind of tantra aspects as well. About a year ago, I stayed with the Secoya tribe in Ecuador where I drank Yagé, which is very similar to Ayahuasca, but it has some significant differences as well, which is what we juiced on our apotheosis retreat.

05:51 MS: And also having all these other ceremonies. I created some MDMA ceremonies. I've done yoga. There's so many rituals in Buddhism. I've done long retreats as well. These things are very fluid. They're not set in stone. And these... You can create a lot of rituals or context or meaning around it for different purposes. So you can really shape these tools. I've always been interested in creating something that's more modern, more suitable for people who are interested in these things and felt they could keep just a psychedelic experience, but don't necessarily want to be with very hippy-like people, if you will.

06:37 MS: I don't think the Synthesis participants, some of them wouldn't fit at my other retreat, and vice versa. And... But there's demand for both. And so in some of our conversations, what we realized there is a therapeutic context, there is a recreational context, there is a spiritual context, but there isn't really a self-development, scientific, modern, well-being context. We felt that was deeply missing 'cause that's... I feel that's the way we'd use it fundamentally. Having that retreat model available I think could maybe help a lot of people.

07:20 PA: This is obviously where the idea initially for Third Wave came from as well, which I've probably talked about in the podcast here and there, but worth revisiting again. When we first came up with the idea for Third Wave, it was, "How can we talk about these substances as tools and as technologies to facilitate real-world tangible outcomes where the experience is secondary to the improvements that we see in our everyday life?" In other words, there are a lot of people, particularly in the Ayahuasca space but also in the psychedelic space, who see the experience itself as primary, and then what happens... What comes from that secondary. And I think one... That was frankly one element that I disagreed with. And I think that's largely because the work that's done is often after the fact. And...

08:16 MS: Yes, absolutely.

08:18 PA: And this is a really important touch point because much of the public conversation so far has focused on the therapeutic model of psychedelics. I'm talking about specifically MDMA for PTSD and Psilocybin for depression, and/or than the spiritual context. So looking at retreats with Ayahuasca, if I were to specialize or specifically pick one thing. And what I found so interesting about the language that Michael Pollan is using and the book that he recently wrote is he talks about these as tools that need to be understood and utilized, and that he's optimistic that they can be used for the betterment of well-being. In other words, you don't need to be sick to gain tremendous value from going through these experiences. And this... Because we obviously don't have a medical or a therapeutic background in offering these retreats to people with Psilocybin truffles, the focal point has been much more on creative breakthroughs, on general personal development, personal growth, and on, I think, facilitating a deeper sense of self-awareness, emotional maturity.

09:45 PA: We had a lot of people who attended the retreat who basically said, "I'm in this transition. I'm entering this transition period, and I would like to have some aspect or level of clarity on what comes next for me." And what I found so interesting about that and why we've been so passionate and enthusiastic about Synthesis is this seems to be indicative of something that's happening at large in our culture, where people are recognizing that they've reached a limit in how much they can understand from looking externally. And that to actually continue to move forward in a way that drives purpose and meaning, in a way that drives joy and general contentment, that the next transition is to really look inwards.

10:35 PA: And obviously, we can do that with modalities like meditation, and yoga, and breath work, which have all been on the rise. But if we've learned one thing, at least if I've learned one thing from my own psychedelic experiences, it's that if done in a responsible, intentional manner, where you're allowed to completely surrender to the experience, psychedelics have a tremendous ability to crystallize insight that could otherwise take weeks, if not months, if not years. And that's no coincidence that more and more people are going through this transition. And again, these are just the assumptions that I go through with our propensity for drug experiences, just that's rooted in our fundamental evolutionary biology. Steven Kotler has written about this extensively. And there's a part in Stealing Fire in fact where he mentions this about de-patterning. In essence, the reason that drug-seeking behavior is so normalized in humans is because we're not even humans, but also animals, it's because we really look to de-pattern ourselves. So why not de-pattern ourselves with drugs that are shown to be non-toxic, non-addictive, and they can be done legally in a set and setting which utilizes basically most modern scientific framework for how we actually facilitate deep, personal insight with these substances?

12:03 PA: So it was validating in many ways to run Synthesis and see those sort of responses that we got from individuals, where we had eight or nine people who for their first psychedelic experience were at Synthesis. And then we had another, I would say as well, nine or 10 people who mentioned that it was the most profound experience of their lives. And I think this is what we're searching for on a deep human level, is profundity.

12:34 MS: Yes.

12:35 PA: And a sense of... Even though this by no means is a spiritual sort of retreat, in essence, a lot of the work that we're doing is about spiritual exploration. And it's about connecting to the sense of divinity that we understand we hold in one another, which when we have that sense of connection and love, allows us to really open up, and then be creative, and continue to grow in our development. And really step forward in our emotional maturity, where we come to an understanding that our basic security and stability is taken care of, and we can allow ourselves to continue to grow and flourish.

13:16 MS: I completely agree with you that we shouldn't underestimate the set and setting of these retreats. Having medical supervision helps you really trust and feel safe than being unguided. It helps you take a bit more than what you normally feel comfortable with. And I'm really curious to find out, because we've been doing research together with the Imperial College in London on the Synthesis retreat, to figure out what happens on a retreat as opposed to, for example, a medical setting. And I'm really curious to find out how many people had mystical experiences, because it seemed some people went really deep and they came back with this look in their eyes, this smile. They just went through oh, bliss and joy, taking them with them out in the world. And most people said, "Oh, I can't wait to share this with my loved ones."

14:15 MS: Also, there's a part of our integration program we developed to speak about it and to integrate it into subjective space. And it was... For me, personally, it felt like a blessing to help and support this process that I think you rightfully characterized as de-patterning. And I really like the metaphor of brushing your teeth every day. For me, that's daily meditation practice, affirmation practice, yoga, small intentional circles. But going to the dentist like every six months to really check fundamentally, deep down, is everything still in alignment or am I following my values? Am I doing what's right for me and my surroundings? And it's so easy sometimes to get stuck to our work patterns, our emotional patterns, our defense mechanisms. Every time you feel beat, in a rut, or in a funk, or stuck, or in transition that you don't really know what's best for you, what's the next step. These tools, for me, have been so deeply powerful to guide me that, yeah, it's so beautiful to share that with others and see the same results.

15:36 PA: Kinda going back to set and setting, in context, we were also fortunate and lucky during the retreats to not only have a beautiful set and setting, but the weather we had was phenomenal as well. And I think that really helped to facilitate a sense of calmness and presence with all of our retreat guests. But obviously, with running the retreat, there's an excellent opportunity to begin collecting data. I know other retreat centers have done this. So I see yours, for example, was working with the Temple of the Way of Light to collect research on how Ayahuasca could be effective for depression, PTSD, general improvements. I'd love to dig a little bit into what you envision, from a research perspective, in what questions would you like answered about the efficacy of, and we'll stick with Psilocybin truffles right now because that's what we're using in Amsterdam for the retreats, what research would you like to see done? What research would you like to do with this program to better understand how Psilocybin impacts and affects personal well-being?

16:45 MS: So with Synthesis, I'm very curious to find out what people bring with them, and what they experience, and what transformation they're going through. So what we looked at is a baseline like personality beliefs for the experience like what... Just before the ceremony, are you anxious? Are you hopeful? What do you expect? And then after, we have different follow-up points in time where we check, "Hey, what changed? Are you less anxious? Do you have the same depressing thoughts or did they diminish?" That's... I've been hanging out with the retreat participants of Apotheosis and they all say, "I have like half of my anxious thoughts that I brought with me." And having the scientific validation for these experiences really I think will open up people to the idea that these are valid tools, these are safe methods to work on some of the things that we struggle with being a human being. 'Cause life can be really difficult. And we all experience things that are hard to process, are hard to live with. And having a relief, a sense of relief and a sense of meaning around them, and that we can grow from it, that we can wake up and grow up, I think it's such a necessary part. And having that scientifically grounded is, I think, one of the challenges of integration of psychedelics into modern culture.

18:42 PA: If you could have a vision of what research you would wanna facilitate going forward, what would that look like? So one thing that comes to mind immediately for me is obviously, what's the relationship between psychedelics, and creativity, and problem-solving? So looking at, redoing the research that Jim Fadiman did in 1966, restating, basically, he took 27 professionals. He gave them a moderate dose of LSD. He said, "Come with a hard problem and let's try to solve it." And the original vision for the retreat that we did was specifically oriented towards creativity, problem-solving, and general leadership. It's beyond clear to me that psychedelics are tools for creativity largely because of this de-patterning mechanism. In short, they interrupt the normally programmed schedule and introduce a variable that allows for expansion and a deepened understanding of how...

19:33 MS: Absolutely. Yeah.

19:34 PA: Things happen in the world around us. What research would you like to see done in that manner?

19:40 MS: It's not in the very near future, but let's say 5, 10 years, is the fact that on a psychedelic, you enter this visionary state. And you can become very attuned to big trends in the world and see problems in a completely different way. And I think we're facing one of the most complex problems, a few of the most complex problems our species have ever faced before, and we need all the help we can get. These new paradigms that we have to come up with, where we have to actually integrate and share socially and integrate in our current culture, that's gonna be so challenging. And I think these tools, if you're gonna work, for example, with different companies that wanna have brainstorm sessions on a psychedelic, I think that should be available. Because what research have been shown is that it increases your openness to experience. It helps you see novelty. It helps you tie things together that seem separate at first but now you see the interrelatedness of these separate maladies and there's no research in that.

20:55 MS: It's all medicalized. And of course, that's a big thing. And for public exception, it's much easier to justify that because this sounds like crazy hippie talk, but it's not. At least that's my bet for the future. And with Synthesis, I think we have the potential to really create this psychedelic institute of the future to not only do research into illnesses, sicknesses. For example, I would love to study eating disorders with psychedelics. But we can also study, let's say, eight people that work in the same company that have an insolvable problem until now and give them another mystical dose, like a really high dose, but a lower dose, and you really optimize the set and setting for creativity to focus on that problem. I think we can figure out a way to address any situation we're in together, so...

21:55 PA: We are dealing with an increasingly complex world. And this is something that we talk about with microdosing, is one, I think higher doses can also help to facilitate this. We know that because psychedelics activate, for example, the 5-HT2A receptor, which is one of 14 serotonin receptors, activation of that is tied to adaptability, is tied of neuroplasticity. In other words, it helps with learning faster and being able to take in increasingly complex information, pattern recognition within that complex information, and then to be able to create new models in how we respond to the world around us. And so this is something that we've talked at length about. If we go back to de-patterning and how the desire to take drugs is within us just like the desire to have sex, the desire to eat food, the desire to...

22:47 MS: It's universal.

22:47 PA: It's a universal thing.

22:48 MS: Across species.

22:49 PA: Across species. And we also then understand without a doubt that psychedelics can help to facilitate the creative thought process. It can help to facilitate adaptability. One of the traits of people who can't adjust is maladaptability. In other words, when there's new information to be processed and you can't adjust your worldview to that new information, then you become less likely to just pass your genes on, so to say. So you're less likely to really take ownership over your life and make something of it. And so I think it's fantastic that we found these keys, so to say, as you like to say, these neurochemical keys that unlock this enhanced sense of adaptability, so that going forward, people who decide to use these in responsible intentional ways will continue to facilitate a higher quality experience for themselves in the here and now.

23:49 PA: I think another really exciting aspect, which again we spoke about with developing Synthesis, is leadership models. If we look at various leadership models, and models of just general maturity, so we have Richard Barrett's model, The Seven Stages of Maturity. We have Dave Logan's Tribal Leadership Model, which looks at organizational leadership. And a lot of the maturation process revolves around going through a post-egoic experience. And this was obviously done in indigenous communities, for example, with things like plant medicines, but also with things like going out and trying to survive in the wild for a week straight or in the desert for a week straight or fasting for a week straight or two weeks straight. In essence, it puts you into a non-dual state, a state where you step outside of your individual ego, and that allows you to see what role you play as part of the larger collective in community. And one of the missing components of Western culture really within the heat of late stage capitalism, so the 20th century, has been that initiation process. And because there's that lack of initiation process, we have basically leaders in business culture who are stuck at the maturity of potentially an 18 or 19-year-old, but that's about it.

25:10 PA: For me, even though the larger potential of what Synthesis but also just general psychedelic use can facilitate is by opening up that post-egoic experience. It enables new models of leadership to really flourish. Because we have the theoretical framework from which they've been developed, but the fact is we haven't quite seen a tipping point yet in the implementation of these models. And if psychedelics are used within an initiatory ritual or process, which again, it is more or less what we're recreating with Synthesis with the eye mask, and the profound music, and the way that we serve the Psilocybin truffles, the entire set and setting, the preparation beforehand, the integration afterwards, this is really a ritual of initiation. And it allows us to see the value in being able to step outside of ourselves for five or six hours. And when we re-enter the individual ego or the individual self, we understand that it's malleable, that it's flexible and that allows us to not, I think, take things so seriously. The whole reason we're doing this work is so everyone else can actually remember what it feels like to just let go and have fun and not care. Because ultimately, these are tools to experience the divine. And the divine in its best form is this total presence of joy, love, surrender, acceptance. The sense of a childlike mentality in the here and now.

26:42 MS: What I find so deeply moving from an on-mystical experiences, but also those around me is that after people tend to take responsibility for themselves and the world around them, and they see how interconnected everything is. And I stayed with the Secoya tribe in the Amazon and I learned so much of leadership being there, just being with them, just hunting with them, just doing things properly the way it's done, because there's no margin for error there. Spending time with people who are like that, me spending time with you, for example, I learned so much from you because you really value these qualities and you really developed them in the last few years. This constant growth and this capacity of seeing new things and knowing that there's more to learn, there's more to discover, the sense of curiosity, it's strongly lacking. In our culture it's like, yes, indigenous cultures have this as integral part of their rituals, but our coming of age rituals are completely destructive.

27:52 MS: You get... You binge drink when you're 16, you take all the drugs you can, and you one-upmanship to kinda get most drunk. And there's no elder, there's no guidance, there's no intentional structure behind that. And I think it's such a waste because we know what makes thriving humans, we know what makes people healthy, compassionate, wise, but also strong and being able to stand up for themselves, and we're not teaching that to our children. And most of us haven't done it ourselves. And being in a context with these catalyst, I think, can change the world or is already changing the world in a way that is definitely, we need it right now.

28:40 PA: And this is when we talk about the model of "Wake up and grow up," which I believe is a quote from Ken Wilber. And this is something that we've touched on multiple times, in that if we continue to do business as usual and we have leaders in place who continue to do business as usual, who really aren't "Waking up" to the reality of the world around them, then this exponential growth towards eco-side will only continue to get worse. And I think this is why a lot of people are somewhat overly optimistic about psychedelics, is because they do facilitate that post-egoic experience, but without obviously the proper container, the proper preparation, the proper integration, instead of it being a chance to really wake up and make substantial changes again in our waking life, in the aftermath of the experience, without all that work that's done, it becomes just simply a drug experience. Something that can slip through the fingers and maybe not be as substantial or integrated as we would hope it becomes. And this is... This again gets back to the importance of doing this work we're talking about with psychedelics now, doing this work in an intentional professional setting.

29:55 PA: Because the difference between just taking mushrooms at home without any proper guidance or support and actually doing it in a setting that's been curated specifically for the experience is substantial. And for many people...

30:09 MS: It's huge.

30:11 PA: For many people who are considering this, or who have considered it, or even probably people who have done it before, in most retreat settings, I've found that there's just a lack of attention paid to the entire experience. In other words, the quality of the retreat or the experience is not very high. And I think that's something that needs to change as soon as possible. And this is one element that we've made a sticking point for our own retreat in Amsterdam.

30:46 MS: Yeah. It's so important. We urge people to eat better, take proper self-care, meditate, [unclear speech]. And really prepare the mind, body, and psyche to going through the experience knowing full well why you're there and what you had to sacrifice for being there. And maybe this level of honesty, self-honesty and respect, I think are qualities that maybe enhance the experience. It's not uncommon in traditional cultures to do week-long special diets, refraining from thinking about certain things or saying certain things, refraining from sex, just the hedonistic pleasures, and really tune into why are you on this planet? What's your purpose like? Why do you wake up in the morning?

31:48 PA: One thing that I envision is as psychedelics become medicalized, they're... MAPS has already talked about this, for example, how they wanna set up basically like clinics, where they'll treat these substances, probably in a context where they'll also use breath work, yoga, body-work, other modalities in combination with it. But obviously, with what we're doing in Amsterdam, we're already doing this with people outside of a medical context. In building, in institute, as we spoke about earlier, there's an opportunity to basically establish and lay the ground work for what could be a very successful model for working with psychedelics in an intentional context. So I'd love to just hear your thoughts about where you see this headed and going. So your vision for how Synthesis can develop.

32:43 MS: We don't know the upper limits of well being. If you maybe look at the text of some of the mystics, some of the most self-actualized people, you might get a sense that, "Wow, this reality is possible, this kind of heaven on earth feeling that I've experienced in more and more. And the more I clean up, the more I take these things seriously, the more I try to look at my being as my shadow and integrate them." Just think about what we can do if a culture starts doing that. I think microdosing is a great step in that direction. But imagine dedicated institutes where they synthesize different modalities of well-being and use psychedelics as a catalyst. What kind of amazing, human-flourishing can be created? And I think we are just at the beginning of what is possible. I think we can't really see beyond 5 years, 10 years, 'cause the horizon becomes blurry.

33:56 PA: I've one other element to add to that. We look at things like breath work, we look at things like neuro feedback, EMDR, TRE, Trauma Release Exercises, more active modalities like yoga, meditation, the missing component in the psychedelic space now is personalized medicine. I think that is an avenue, and an opportunity that is profoundly exciting. How does working with X amount of Psilocybin combined with 20 minutes of meditation and an hour in the float tank, how is that for a 45-year-old CEO who's struggling from adrenal burnout, compared to a 65-year-old woman who has PTSD? And all of a sudden, we can start to create customized treatments, whole body, whole mind-body treatments, facilitating deep, deep healing. We could help people reach tremendous levels of human potential. And that to me is the more exciting part, is yes, obviously we can synthesize these modalities, but even more importantly, we can actually start to collect an equals one data, which then allows us to administer treatment modalities that will potentially blow even the phase II trial, MAPS' phase II trial results out of the water. In MAPS' phase two trials they cured, I think there were 80 to 90 people who were involved in the trial, 69% of them were cured from PTSD after the one-year checkup. And I just envision if there are personalized modalities available to treat everyone where they're at with what they specifically respond to best, we could look at that being even higher than...

35:44 MS: Absolutely.

35:45 PA: Than what it was in phase II. And I think if anyone... That to me is where the huge potential lies and where all this could go.

35:54 MS: We're at the very, very beginning. That's how I feel. And there's so much we don't know. And being in this space right now to figure out what are the right questions and then figuring out how can we answer these, it's so exciting.

36:09 PA: We have an upcoming retreat at the end of July, early August. And then we'll have another week-long retreat in November, where basically the focus is on facilitating profound, meaningful experience with Psilocybin truffles, which are legal in Amsterdam. Anything that you wanna add about the retreat specifically that you think people will wanna know or that is relevant to our conversation?

36:35 MS: Well, the week one is definitely not for beginners. It's gonna be a bit more intense for people who wanna go deeper and experience a whole integrated week. So it's gonna be more than just a Psilocybin retreat. So our selection will be a bit more strict on that. For a few days, though, we are almost half full, I think, for the next one. So yeah, spots are filling up fast. But if you ever wanna try a higher dose of Psilocybin in a safe setting, and we prepare it in such a way that there is no bridging. Very, very little physical uncomfortableness. In some traditions that's valued, and I think that's valid in those traditions, but it's not something we're aiming for. Check out Synthesis and let us know who you are and why you are interested, and if you're a good fit. 'Cause we are going to remain quite selective moving forward, 'cause the set and setting is so important for the other participants. I'm really excited for that one because then we can have the opportunity to really go deeper with you.

37:48 PA: So we'll wrap up there. If people do want more details,, and that's where you can get more details about the retreats that we're hosting in Amsterdam.

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