THIRD WAVE PODCAST
Should We Keep Psychedelics Weird?
Anthropologist Sophia Rokhlin joins us on the podcast to discuss ayahuasca, sustainability, and the role of microdosing in capitalist society. Sophia shares her experiences with ayahuasca shamans, and describes the issues of sustainability – where should we draw the line when it comes to the commodification of ayahuasca? Sophia also gives her opinion on microdosing, and the dangers of it being used to further corporate ‘growth-at-all-costs’ goals.
0:00:27 Paul Austin: Hey listeners, and welcome back to the Third Wave Podcast. I’m actually recording this from Amsterdam. I am in Martijn’s living room, my cofounder of Synthesis. We actually just ran one of our
last weekend, the weekend of July 27-29, and we’re about to gear up for another one. So we’re running now legal Psilocybin retreats in Amsterdam. It’s a really fun, exciting project, and I’m pretty amped from the past weekend, with all the transformation that we saw and the experiences that people had in coming to sit with us in ceremony. So that was a really beautiful experience and still processing that. And that leads into the intro for today, which I recorded last week at the Assemblage, a coworking space in New York City, and it’s an interview with Sophia Rokhlin, who is an independent researcher exploring the political economy and ecology of psychoactive plants and the author of a forthcoming book on the global spread of Ayahuasca. Now, I met Sophia last year at Horizons. I remember this woman stood up, long, blonde hair and asked a very good question. I don’t remember what it was, but a very good question for the panel at the end of Horizons, and then ended up meeting her later that night, and we spoke. And then ever since then, we’ve been friends and had some really good conversations about various topics related to Ayahuasca, related to plant medicine, how psychedelics are developing, general cultural things, particularly in New York City.
0:02:09 PA: And so I thought it’d be great to invite her into the podcast and go a little bit deeper into some of these topics, formalize some of what we were talking about and try to come to some understanding or conclusions of this dynamic relationship between the commercialization of Ayahuasca, the globalization of Ayahuasca and how that relates to what will likely be a higher and higher demand for psychedelics in the future. And so we get into some fascinating topics. We kind of stuffed ourselves inside a cramped meeting booth at the Assemblage, I set up my blue Yeti mic and we just went for about an hour, an hour and a half. So I think you’ll really enjoy this conversation. And as always, if you do enjoy it or if not, just please leave us a review on iTunes or any other listening service that you happen to download from. So without further ado, Sophia Rokhlin.
0:03:18 PA: Let’s just jump right in and I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you’re most excited about right now. So what are you working on, what’s going on particularly with psychedelics that you’re just chomping at the bit?
0:03:28 Sophia Rokhlin: Well, right now I’m chomping on my first book. It’s called, “When Plants Dream,” and it’s coming out next year. I’m co-authoring it with Daniel Pinchbeck, and we’re exploring the different cultural re-interpretations of Ayahuasca as it spreads across the world, and we take a very… I think we’re only able to tell our perspectives of it, so it’s a very global North-centric perspective and we say that. And yeah, we cover the literature, the different media interpretations that we’ve seen, interviewed everyone from entrepreneurs, to lawyers, to shamans and just trying to understand the different narratives that people have about the significance of Ayahuasca spreading across the world right now.
0:04:14 PA: And what are like… Sneak peek.
0:04:17 SR: Yeah, sure. [chuckle]
0:04:18 PA: What are some of those narratives that are developing within the [unclear speech]?
0:04:21 SR: One that’s particularly interesting to me is there’s this idea of the plant teacher, this idea that psychedelic plants are sentient and animate beings with agency. Many people who try Ayahuasca for the first time report feeling like they’ve been in contact with some sort of an intelligent entity that is not human, and for many people that may be their first time having that experience. So that opens up a whole Pandora’s box of, “Wow,” or, “Is the world as animate, the world as enchanted?” And then from that opening of perspective comes this idea, this anthropomorphised perspective of Ayahuasca as a mother, as a grandmother, as a tool. There are different words that people use to describe, it, her, the medicine, being and that… Some people will say that it’s like a chemical SOS, a pheromonal signal that’s coming from the Amazon in order to bring attention to deforestation, or for us to heal our more materialistic behaviors or our more hurtful behaviors. So that’s one of the main narratives that we see.
0:05:30 PA: Which reminds me a little bit of what Dennis McKenna has spoken about. He talks a lot about how he had this really deep Ayahuasca experience where basically the medicine told him to wake up, something about monkeys, and waking up and about, eco-side…
0:05:47 SR: Yeah, where we’ve been through running the show. [chuckle]
0:05:49 PA: Yeah, yeah. That’s the quote for sure.
0:05:51 SR: Yeah, yeah.
0:05:52 PA: And it also reminds me of a piece I was recently reading on Aeon, I don’t know if you’ve seen this piece by Jules Evans.
0:05:57 SR: Yeah. I haven’t.
0:06:00 PA: Who wrote about, is psychedelics really a new scientific framework or is it a new theological framework with the larger goals of the psychedelic, particularly subculture renaissance right now going on where it’s really about, I think, birthing a new paradigm where we transition as a species from a lot of these destructive narratives into this regenerative ecosystem that really pays attention to indigenous wisdom as well as modern technology. And so that was also a really interesting look ’cause he referred specifically to Ayahuasca in there and the sense of it having this anthropomorphised, motherly dynamic. What has been your experience with that when you’ve either participated or just through your research? How credible do you find that to be or what’s your take on it?
0:06:49 SR: I’ve said this before and I’m decidedly undecided. I feel like because I’ve been so immersed in different research about it, I myself don’t know where I locate myself in it, but my experiences that I have had with Ayahuasca or yage in the upper Amazon when I was 18, 19, I went to go visit the Secoya tribe and they live in the Northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon; and the Secoya are part of a Tucano ethno-linguistic group. So the Siona, the Cofano nearby and this is just like… Most… Very masculine traditions. There’s this less essentialized soft feminine quality and you don’t see people talking about yage as a woman, actually. My closer experiences have been through that. I wasn’t really exposed to the narrative that Ayahuasca was the mother or something when I first experienced it. And as such, I didn’t feel it in that gendered way if that makes sense? But it does raise a lot of interesting questions.
0:07:50 PA: And this is the point that Jules Evans was making in this piece was, one of the reasons that psychedelics for example, now facilitate mystical experiences was because Bill Richards, who is the Johns Hopkins researcher, who was working on this stuff in the ’60s, he took that narrative of the relationship between psychedelics and non-dual experiences, and then they specifically created a container at Johns Hopkins to facilitate that exact experience. So I think one of the big questions is, how do the assumptions that we come to this experience with, then dictate the actual outcome that we’re after? And I think I’d be curious to hear you talk more about within that framework, why is it that then Ayahuasca has this, or supposedly this motherly quality to it? So where did that narrative develop?
0:08:41 SR: I think you’ve probably heard this idea that psychedelics have sometimes been called non-specific amplifiers.
0:08:47 PA: I think Stanislav Grof was the dude who said that.
0:08:49 SR: Yeah. So with this idea, then you think, “Okay, well maybe there isn’t an inherent goodness or an inherent badness to these substances.” And yet, I feel like especially with Ayahuasca, people do assign the inherent benevolence and this has come through especially in marketing tactics. So you will for example, receive a miracle, you will have a transformational experience etcetera, etcetera, and you kinda get what you pay for. If you’re going into it believing that that’s likely gonna shape your experience, same thing if you fall in love and you say, “This is gonna be the love of my life,” you’ll think that for a little while until something leads you to believe otherwise.
0:09:34 PA: So suggestibility. That sometimes comes up to me as these tools as non-specific amplifiers significantly increase suggestibility which is on the one side, the positive side, why intention is so important, a certain setting going into the experience, but also on the dark side and maybe this is something we can dig further into is why you have things like what happened with Charles Manson for example in the ’60s, where then they can also be utilized as tools for more dark energy. And I know this is the case with Ayahuasca as well, I believe, in the Amazon.
0:10:07 SR: Yeah, I’ve been particularly interested in looking at the yin-yang of these traditions. I remember, once a man in the Amazon said to me… I kept having this recurring vision of this, I was having beautiful visions and I was flying through beautiful enchanting cities, and then a big black curtain would just fall over my visions and it felt super dramatic and I came to him and I said, “What’s happening with this?” And he says, “It’s a yin-yang, you just go through the darkness. You can’t ignore the darkness, you can’t push it away or something like that. You have to see through it.” So I think that shamanism is always shading into sorcery. I’ve noticed that… People ignore this, people ignore that this is a reality but because we want it to be a new healing thing and I think that this is what happens, especially when psychedelics at large are explored through a medical framework because it’s a medicine. And they are medicines, of course, but the poison is in the dose.
0:11:07 SR: And I think that that’s what’s so interesting about it actually, psychedelics are so unpredictable and that’s the beauty of them. They create spontaneous healing and two people can have the same dose of Ayahuasca and have completely different experiences and that’s… There’s a lot of beauty to that and sometimes I wonder in our pursuit to legalize, and normalize and mainstream these substances, are we setting ourselves up for a situation where we take out those variables and where you need to have a pill that always works?
0:11:42 PA: And so what is coming up on the horizon? Obviously, you wrote a piece about this for Chacruna, which we will reference in the show notes for this and I was reading through it, just before I came over, which you more or less outlined some of the dark sides of not only the increasing medicalization but also commercialization of psychedelics. What were some of your main takeaways or some things that you dug into in that piece?
0:12:06 SR: Yeah. I think there are definitely a few of them. One of them is removing… I don’t wanna say I’m a purist, but I’ll explain why there’s a certain thing in… Stephan Beyer wrote this amazing book called, “Singing to the Plants“, so I draw upon his work when I say this. When we try to isolate one favorable aspect of something, we tend to neglect the whole ecology of things that play in to how that thing works. So for example, maybe I just take Ayahuasca, but the Ayahuascado might be singing “Icaros, there may be smells, there may be relationships that you have in that room that create multi-dimensional experience that really imprints on your consciousness, that makes it such a profound experience. And I also think that when we increasingly medicalize these things, we take out the element of catharsis. So in Greek, catharsis means to purge actually, it’s like the same thing. So, if we’re saying, “We’re gonna microdose with Ayahuasca,” it’s like, “I’m just gonna have the frosting on this,” and that’s fine in some cases, but the question is, is that necessarily doing the medicine justice?
0:13:14 SR: We often ask the question, “What can these things to do for us?” But not what we can do for them. And I think that because we’re now sort of… I speak for myself, having come… I was born and raised in New York City, and I came from… My neighbors were skyscrapers and small yorkies, I didn’t grow up with big evergreens and things. So after having taken psychedelics, I had this experience that the Earth asks things of us. Plants begin to indicate to you when they’re thirsty or when they want more light and it requires a specific perspective to see that. So that’s my hope, is that we don’t necessarily have a extractive attitude towards these medicines, they’re gonna be so good for us, etcetera, etcetera, but how can we give back to them? And then that bleeds into the whole sustainability conversation with some of these entheogenic plants.
0:14:09 PA: So let’s pick that apart a little bit. I think there’s three main things within that. I’d first like to hear you talk a little bit about what’s happening so far in the psychedelic space that represents to you just a renewal or a repeat of the extractive economy that’s been based on… That industrial capitalism has been based on for the last few hundred years. So in other words, what’s developing in the psychedelic space right now that you see as potentially dangerous because of these reasons?
0:14:41 SR: I would… I’m speaking about these things simply because I hope for the resilience of these movements. Sometimes I wonder, there’s a fine line between cynicism and critique. So I say this in hope of actually making these things better, right?
0:14:53 PA: Sure.
0:14:53 SR: I went to The Sacred Plants Conference in Ajijic in Mexico last spring, early… Yeah.
0:15:00 PA: That was the one that Bia organized, right?
0:15:01 SR: Mm-hmm, yeah.
0:15:01 PA: Okay, it was in Spanish and…
0:15:02 SR: It was incredible, it was so cool. It was the most age-diverse, multidisciplinary, it was really, really an impressive conference. But there, there was a woman, I believe she was a Huichol woman from Mexico, and she stood up in tears and she said, “This is all very nice, but Peyote is our access point to our ancestors. And Western people come here for a novel experience and we can’t find them anymore, they’re disappearing.” And I know that Bia has done a lot of research on this as well.
0:15:36 SR: And again, with Ayahuasca, for example, this is a little bit more of contested territory. Ayahuasca is a vine, it’s not like the little cactus and it grows like crazy. However, I have had a really intense interview with a guy, he lives in a tributary south of Iquitos and he told me that there was this old, old Ayahuasca vine, a banisteriopsis that was growing in the village. And for many, many years, they don’t know for how long, but for generations, people would come and sit at the foot of the vine, and they would sing to the vine, and they would shake it and a piece of the vine would drop down, and that was the piece that the vine offered. And one night somebody came and just hacked the vine down to the root and that vine, presumably is now being sold in the Belen markets in Iquitos for, not much. And then you begin to wonder, when we do, I don’t wanna say evangelize, but when you do have this perspective, “Everybody needs to try Ayahuasca,” we should put it in Donald Trump’s Gatorade, I’ve heard that more than once. [chuckle]
0:16:43 PA: Yeah. That would be a disgusting Gatorade, but I’m thinking I might…
0:16:46 SR: I mean…
0:16:50 SR: New flavors.
0:16:50 PA: New flavors. The new Ayahuasca flavor for Gatorade, that’s gonna totally be a thing.
0:16:54 SR: Yeah, hashtag.
0:16:54 PA: That will totally be a thing.
0:16:57 SR: But yeah, in any case, so these are the things I think about, it’s… Ultimately, with regards to sustainability, I know that Chris Kilham is doing research right now. You recently spoke with him?
0:17:07 PA: Yeah. I interviewed him for the podcast a couple of months ago and we had talked about this exact topic about the possible extinction of Ayahuasca and he’s basically going down because there’s actually no research that’s been done on this so far.
0:17:19 SR: Yeah, that’s right.
0:17:19 PA: So he’s actually trying to discover what might be the case, but when I think about this as well, I also think about the paradigm of a lot of these substances are doing similar things to us as humans. So DMT, which is the psychoactive component of Ayahuasca is a tryptamine, just like Psilocybin is a tryptamine. And so oftentimes, when people hear or talk about this extract of economy that’s taking Ayahuasca and basically selling it to Westerners, my first response to that is, “Well, we should just get more people on mushrooms,” because mushrooms grow really fast, they grow everywhere. There won’t be any issues ever with, “Oh, we don’t have enough mushrooms,” because of how quick they can reproduce. So that’s just always the framework through which I think of things, but at the same time, clearly Ayahuasca has a cultural context. And so, although, it’s easy as a Westerner to say that, I think it’s clear that in the Amazon, in particular, that ecosystem, there’s concerns about fragility when it comes to this medicine.
0:18:18 SR: Yeah, the conversation about even Ayahuasca analogs, for example, is very big, but part of… Yeah, the tricky thing with that is that Ayahuasca does have a multi-dimensional shamanic framework that we don’t see with mushrooms anymore. Traditionally, we may have with Maria Sabina, but unfortunately, now, that’s not so much the case. So with the mushrooms, we reinvent our new rituals, which is amazing because for me, psychedelics offer a right of passage. And this, I think, is the thing that we all, regardless of our long-term visions of psychedelics really admire about them, is that they teach us, they blur the boundaries between material and spiritual, between self and other, and teach us what it is to be human in a way that right now, we’ve lost those rituals in our globalized, industrial society. So… Yeah. The thing is is that when we talk about just Ayahuasca, we’re also talking about this immense body of vegetalismo, of plant medicine and doctoring with plants, which is in my, at least limited knowledge of it pretty… We don’t see it in many other places around the world because of the Amazon’s immense biodiversity, we have so many plants there.
0:19:33 PA: Let’s dig a little bit further into globalization, industrialization, as demand rises for psychedelics, because we have the scientific research that shows they’re effective at treating depression and PTSD. From your understanding, how does the economic aspect play out to support that need and demand without having Ayahuasca go extinct?
0:19:54 SR: It’s a great question. I think, before the economic question, comes a question of the narratives that we tell about these medicines. So I’ve seen that overwhelmingly in mainstream media, on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, wherever people are publishing these Gonzo reports, the reality of indigenous people living in these situations is often situated as an endnote or something. You say, “Yes, I go to the Amazon rainforest, and I have this experience,” but they often fail to mention that on their way down that river, they also saw huge barges with petrol, and logs and these things. It’s very myopic perspective.
0:20:31 SR: So I think as people who are advocates of psychedelics, who are researchers, that’s our job to actually be bringing a more holistic awareness of the impacts maybe of spiritual tourism and not only the impacts, but actually the opportunity we have to be helping indigenous people demarcate territory. I’ve seen a couple of times when people are like, “I just need a couple of grand to secure this land, so Nestle doesn’t buy it to make a cacao plantation.” Very simple stuff. We could be helping people… More legal defense cases. ICEERs for example, in Barcelona has been doing great with the Legal Defense Fund and I would love to see something like that but actually legal defense fund for people in the Amazon, fighting environmental justice cases. So things like that, I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for reciprocity in our awareness which would then turn into an economic reciprocity, if that makes sense.
0:21:31 PA: Yeah. And how would that economic reciprocity play out, or how would you envision that?
0:21:36 SR: I think it’s a romantic idea or naive to think that we could go back to a bartering economy in the Amazon. Traditionally, Kenneth Tupper talks a lot about this in his essays in the political economy of Ayahuasca. And he says, traditionally healers would offer a bundle of tobacco or a chicken and such, and they would get the healing in exchange, and now, people are in it for-profit, they need money. So with that, I think that, again, I’m not an expert on it, but I imagine that some priorities in the Amazon, my time working with the Rainforest Foundation, which is an NGO who works with communities out in forests, it’s really important to secure food sovereignty and energy sovereignty. So that way these people who do offer us their medicines in exchange, we help with basic life tools like clean water, and having land to farm and to hunt or whatever that may be. And these things are pretty… They’re complicated, but they’re also quite intuitive and simple, and I don’t think it’s brought up enough in the conversation in Ayahuasca. It’s like this miraculous thing that just floats without any cultural context, is what I’m saying.
0:22:45 PA: Which, of course, has all these potentially negative consequences when it comes to destruction of a lot of these areas that the Ayahuasca is grown in. Because you have Western tourists, who are flying down there, who are paying high sums of money, like you were emphasizing. With really, I think not a clear recognition of how that’s actually supporting the larger ecosystem of where Ayahuasca comes from.
0:23:11 SR: Yeah, exactly. But again, more than anything I feel optimistic, I really do. I’ve always felt very passionate about the rainforest ever since I was a little kid, and I learned about it in National Geographic and I had my whatever perspective on it. It’s like, it’s not a niche consideration to think that the Amazon rainforest produces more than 20% of our oxygen, it’s home to more biodiversity than anywhere else on earth. It would be a real shame if we just didn’t pull it together and helped people protect their lands. And we know that quantitatively, indigenous people who have their land titles, protect the land the best. So suddenly, we see a clear link here. What if the whole Ayahuasca globalization narrative came with a commensurate emphasis on saying, “Hey, and guess what? We’re gonna put 10% of proceeds from our retreat centers,” as soon as people obviously start making enough to support themselves, it’s like, “We’re gonna start putting it into language revitalization programs or women’s health programs,” or whatever that may be, and again, not coming from a American development, “we know best” perspective. I certainly hope that’s not the case because that framework is definitely not gonna help.
0:24:28 PA: What is the American developmental thing? And how is that different than what people could do with their own money, locally in the Amazon?
0:24:37 SR: There’s this scholar, Ivan Illich and he said, he wrote this amazing paper. It was an address to young college students going to do study abroads and he said, “To hell with good intentions.” So basically, a lot of the times people from the global North, will go to the global South with the best of intentions, they wanna help. And I have an experience with this, actually, canvassing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and there was a woman who said to me, “These NGOs came, we asked for clean water and they gave us new fences.” So sometimes without close enough conversation with local people, “we know best” sort of situation, because we have data, because we’re futurists, because whatever story we tell ourselves, we know better. So that’s a very tough thing, fostering inter-cultural conversation while at the same time relinquishing our legacy of being at the helm of globalized civilization being in New York city. And saying, “We don’t know but we’re just here, we’re humble. And if you need a fund raise, we’ll use those tools. If we need a campaign, we’ll use those tools.” But creating a clear channel of conversation, and what better way to do that than with Ayahuasca. Suddenly, there’s a wide open door where never before have CEOs and hedge fund managers and such been interested in Amazonian Shamanism.
0:26:01 PA: And that’s, I think, one element that I’d love to now transition into is, we’ve been talking a little bit about the commercialization of psychedelics and Ayahuasca in particular. What are some of your concerns with developing things around microdosing, around for-profit companies within this space? So I already mentioned Compass Pathways. I think it also goes without mentioning that I’m now running a for-profit retreat in Amsterdam for Psilocybin. So I’d love to hear more about just, from your understanding, the Western perspective or I think what you’re referring to as the global North, what are some of your concerns in terms of how those narratives are developing in the for-profit psychedelic space right now? In other words, maybe touching on accessibility. So for example, we know that the therapy that MAPS is rolling out is going to be extremely expensive and likely won’t be covered by insurance initially. So yeah, I just would love to hear a little bit more from you.
0:26:54 SR: There’s a great meme: LSD in the 1960s used to take down the system. [chuckle] LSD in 2017 used to be more productive for our bosses. So I think… What I hope for, for people who like you, who talk about microdosing is yes, we may be enhancing creativity and productivity but what for? I think that little extra bit is the question that might not get asked enough.
0:27:20 PA: I’d love to hear what you think if people are using these as tools so to say to facilitate awakening in some cases, to facilitate as we said maturation and initiation. But even if they’re using tools like microdosing for general enhancement for creativity and productivity. From your perspective, what can business do to actually have a significant positive impact on communities, on the world in particular with thinking of psychedelics within that framework?
0:27:49 SR: I definitely don’t have… I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have those answers but I have a particular leaning towards social justice issues. Not again, for me, I have a particular leaning towards looking at people living in agrarian landscapes who live closely with the Earth because it’s an issue that is actually important to all of us, to have healthy ecosystem, to mitigate climate change, to have carbon sinks etcetera, etcetera. So what I hope for is that businesses at least take these things into consideration and it’s not just business as usual, creating cool technological gizmos and gadgets that still require titanium mining from South Africa. I think we can ask ourselves, with this new LSD vision, to use those superpowers to gaze into the future and to say, “What are the ultimate impacts? What is the whole production chain of my work? Where did these materials come from? Who sources them? How much longer can we be drawing them for?” And then really from there, creating regenerative, cool solutions to divert or at least to rewrite that narrative that we have, of a highly entropic and extractive economy as it were.
0:29:06 PA: What’s an entropic economy? Could you explain that?
0:29:10 SR: Yeah, the idea of entropy is basically that 100% of energy will never come back once we use it. So we live in a world where we’re gonna have diminishing returns, when we extract something, it will never fully come back, if that makes sense. So if you live in a planet, in a limited biosphere, you have finite resources and yet we have an economic system that treats our… We have a GDP that asks that we increase the amount of products that we make and we sell etcetera, etcetera. So there seems to be a deep, deep logical fallacy there and this is an issue that really is, everyone’s involved in. So how can we all put our heads together and start to think about that? And I have faith that microdosing, psychedelics, all of these movements can really start to think in terms of economic exchanges, and sovereignty and just new cool, creative ways that don’t just cement the status quo.
0:30:10 PA: And what is the status quo according to you?
0:30:12 SR: I’m seated upon privilege here. But I think that there is this idea that we need to be infinitely productive, making more, buying more, doing more, getting more, more, more, more. Yada, yada, yada. And how cool would it be to not do that anymore? Oh, how naive I may be but I don’t know, I’ve definitely met many people. If you look at these new pastoral movements, I’ve met tons of people. Half of my homies from Occupy Wall Street are living out in farms now. And it’s a very interesting pattern with people who drink Ayahuasca, they’ve been on a track to do that whole metropolitan successful thing, and then they just decide to hunker down with babies and fruit trees instead. So I do think that there is a definitely a shift in the way that people’s values and perspectives change, especially with plant medicines but that also comes with the narrative that we tell about plant medicine. So like we said before, LSD was once used to destabilize the empire and now it’s used in Silicon Valley to just build apps in cooler and faster ways.
0:31:24 PA: And which is why it’s so important again that these are tools of suggestibility.
0:31:28 SR: Yes.
0:31:29 PA: And these are tools that are non-specific amplifiers. So this is something that even as someone who’s a more public figure about microdosing, who’s going to tech conferences to speak at a… Who’s… Basically has a public platform that people are identifying and recognizing, I think I’ve made it my choice to really help build a narrative around transitioning from these extractive economies and business practices that are rooted in that. In other words, an unbending push towards productivity, and towards growth and towards oftentimes, building and how do we actually use these as tools and align them with things like artificial intelligence and the rise of basically, potentially UBI. So that ideally we’re using them as tools for creativity, for tapping into flow states. So that, what used to take us eight hours on a normal workday, ’cause we have 40-hour work weeks, now takes 3-4 hours.
0:32:29 PA: And so, this gets really to the importance then of what psychedelics do. Which to me, they often represent this opportunity to actually know the self, the true self really well. And I see that as being the significant sort of… What’s a good way to put this? Like, this is what you’re hitting at, when you talk about how people are now recognizing that the doing process is not working for them anymore. That they followed the traditional path, they went to Yale, they started working in a law firm, they became partner, and they thought that just by continuing to climb this ladder, they would be happy. And they now recognize that that was a poor model, so to say. That in fact, true happiness and contentment comes from relationship.
0:33:16 SR: Yeah.
0:33:17 PA: And comes from being in the world, and having that balance between being and doing. This seems to be the larger conversation that’s happening. The new infrastructure that’s being built around work, is how do you help people find work that’s deeply purpose-driven and meaningful? And I think as that conversation continues, it’s just going to align with all these other things that we’re talking about. Because I think, at the end, as humans, the way that we’ve been evolutionary built, is to have a relationship with the earth. And that the longer we ignore that, the worse the mental health crisis is gonna be, the worse all this other shit that’s going on. So I almost see these as… These tools are coming around at the right time.
0:34:02 SR: Some people do say like, “Wow, psychedelics right now. It’s like, the time has come.” There’s this big renaissance and it’s our right to come back as humans to cognitive liberty. To be able to think, and feel, and do as we as humans, as pledge takers, and livers with just can be. It’s pretty cool time.
0:34:25 PA: The other thing that I’m recognizing, some of these patterns that are going on are… On the one hand, you do have these people who are trying to return to a more pastoral side of things. On the other hand, you have the bio-hacking tech crowd, who want to utilize AI to become gods, to basically supersede our Homo sapien nature, and move into a space where it is about never-ending productivity, growth and building. What are your thoughts on that?
0:35:01 SR: My MO is as an anthropologist, so I love to study the different stories, the different cosmo visions, orientating stories that people tell themselves. And you clearly see that, especially in the psychedelics movement, but also just in activist movements more broadly people who are “doing things,” you see romanticized, indigenous futures. This yearning to go back to some sort of a simplified and holistic past.
0:35:29 PA: I think, the archaic revival…
0:35:31 SR: Exactly.
0:35:31 PA: Is what Terence McKenna called it.
0:35:34 SR: Yeah, classic. We’re just gonna keep wanting to go back…
0:35:36 PA: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
0:35:37 SR: To make America great again. But really, though, think about it. And then you also have this techno-utopian, accelerated AI, so on and so forth kind of, “We can create accelerated technologies to accelerate solutions, perspectives.” I hope that there’s a middle path. And I’ve actually seen that in, I think of this amazing artwork by this woman, Sara Flores, and she’s Shipibo, she’s an artist. She did this project with the Shipibo Conibo project called, Chimera. And they’re these Shipibo kene tapestry. Now, it’s kind of… Now it’s like a worldwide Ayahuasca motif, these tapestries. They’re woven into geometric patterns, and they can be actually read like songs. They’re these vibrations, puro sonido, the pure sound of the language that the plants speak. Sara actually etched QR codes into these tapestries as a political statement to say that indigenous people are also modern people. We don’t have to be tied to this idea that we are somehow the beginning. And what does indigenous even mean? They’ve crossed the Bering Strait, yada yada yada. Yeah, I think that’s part of it.
0:36:55 SR: And you and I were speaking a little bit earlier on just the plurality, now that the psychedelics movement is getting older, I think you and I are part of a new generation of people. Our work is upon the backs of those who have been seriously, they’ve been put in jail, they’ve been ostracized. I really don’t know, but there’s certainly many, many different perspectives here. And it’s cool to see that you can have people, even like you and I who do have some different ideas of how we’re going forward with psychedelics, we still have a mutual appreciation for the fact that they bring us back to being the best human we can be, through these rights of passage.
0:37:31 PA: And that’s what I term, I think, the “self-optimization process.”
0:37:34 SR: [chuckle] Yeah.
0:37:35 PA: This is where I get some pushback and some shit from people, in the psychedelic space.
0:37:38 SR: Yeah. And they’re like, “Be your true, essential self.”
0:37:41 PA: Yeah. And then you get into the personal development stuff, like the Tony Robbins Ask Movement. Tony Robbins, by the way, recommends Ayahuasca, apparently.
0:37:47 SR: Oh, recommends?
0:37:48 PA: As part of his Platinum Coaching process.
0:37:50 SR: Are you serious? Thanks for that.
0:37:51 PA: Yeah, it’s in there. For the really high-end stuff, he’ll recommend people go do Ayahuasca. And this is becoming increasingly popular in this field. I’ve talked to at least four executive coaches, or five, who are now with Michael Pollan’s new book, all these people are coming out of the woodwork and being like, “Oh, I’m really interested in this. How do I get involved with this?” My big thing is, as a pragmatist, as someone who’s very practical-minded and oriented towards what’s gonna work, I always look for the carrot and the stick, so to say. In other words, how do you get people to start to engage with you? And then, through that process, how do you bring them along to a new story that actually is really what they’re after? And I think that is potentially what psychedelics could do in the business space, as you have a lot of people who are running companies who are frankly miserable, and they’re starting to recognize that being miserable is a choice. And they’re looking at these tools to help with that. And I think that’s a fantastic opportunity to just completely change organizational culture and how people actually relate to their companies, how people relate to the earth through those companies, etcetera, etcetera.
0:38:55 SR: But you could even look at this, and I think that’s totally right. I feel like some people, especially when they do have their psychedelic experience, they’re either on the boat or they’re off the boat, meaning, you’re either with the society project or you’re not. You see people who just peace out, they’re done, they don’t wanna be a part of it. And something that is awesome about being an entrepreneur, just by being a minority in the psychedelics space is that you’re saying, “Hey, this is what we’re working with, let’s do it.” So then the question is, how do you invite people who have jumped off the ship to say, “What have you learned over there? What have you learned about farming? What have you learned about ecology? What have you learned about your new perspectives?” And maybe creating hybridized economic indicators, so instead of GDP, using other factors like the well-being of the Earth, how much ocean acidification happens? How much arable land is left? How much carbon do we emit into the atmosphere? These are projects that people are working on already, but right now, they’re considered like heterodox, or weird or alternative. And that’s what I hope ultimately would be… That would be awesome if somehow that kind of consciousness would be brought into the consciousness movement.
0:40:06 PA: Can you clarify that a little bit more? Do you mean the consciousness of the recognition that we come to in psychedelics in terms of being interconnected to everything? Or do you mean the consciousness of quantitative measurements of actually how are we seeing tangible change?
0:40:19 SR: Yeah the latter, I think more looking at… Really looking at the operating system, like the economic operating system. It has nothing to do with math and… [chuckle] Everybody can have access to it. It’s just basic… To me, understanding that I come from a school of thought and if you wanna read more about this, there’s The Rules. The Rules is an amazing activist group and they just have been working on a post-growth economic conversation. We’re saying that there are limits to economic growth right now, and how can we create new, diverse economies in a way that is resilient and sustainable? And I would be excited to have that conversation go into the psychedelic conversation more, because right now, it’s extremely medicalized and with that, because we’re working to legitimize these things in mainstream culture, it’s also extremely individualized.
0:41:12 SR: And when we continue to say, “Well, we’re gonna solve this thing, this diagnosis for this person, for this illness,” you’re still working, you’re still treating within a very individual thing and you’re not working on, “Well, what’s the issue with this person’s community? What’s the issue with their access to food, to water, to other psychedelics,” for example. But that’s not to say that people aren’t thinking about it. I think that the people at MAPS, I think all of these people are really… Have an incredibly sophisticated and wide breadth of understanding of how multi-dimensional all of this is. So my hope is that we can graduate now from just the extremely medicalized book… Look at Pollan’s book. It was a huge hit because he spoke to us in the mainstream language of the rational, educated people of the United States, which is medicine. You can’t argue with medicine, you can’t argue with the science. He’s now talking about sexuality and rubbing against plants and how his LSD experience was so cool. It’s all about hard science. So now, let’s talk about rubbing against plants. [laughter]
0:42:19 PA: Right. And I think that’s ultimately what I hear a lot of these conversations come back to. It’s like, “What’s gonna be the most effective Trojan Horse to actually get people in mainstream culture to start to buy into this?” Because I think it is a matter of a little bit of magic, so to say, where a lot of us who have gone through this experience recognize the need for it and the validity of it, as well. And we have now that validity with the clinical research they’ve done at places like Johns Hopkins, on how Psilocybin can induce a “mystical experience.” But how do you get a rational, Western, science-minded materialist-reductionist framework? And help people to step outside of that and actually recognize that we’re not just this atomized thing that’s separate from everything else, but that in fact we’re basically energy vibrations, coalescing for a periods of time and then dispersing again. The big question that a lot of this rests on is, “How do you re-integrate spirituality into modern life, without the dogma of religion?”
0:43:21 PA: And I think that’s a big issue because I think at the root of a lot of these systemic issues that we deal with, particularly around mental health, it is about food access, or water access, or communities, particularly that have been ravished by the war on drugs. But I think the larger thing that it’s about is what Nietzsche spoke about in late 19th century, which is that, God is dead and that we don’t have any systems like, this whole thing, this is all mounting up now because for the past 110 years, we’ve been going through an existential crisis as Western civilization, and we just don’t know how to get out of it and there’s a lot of people pointing to, “Well, if you just go further down that rabbit hole… ”
0:44:02 SR: Yeah. We’ll get there.
0:44:02 PA: “Of materialist reductionism, eventually… ” And I think a lot of us in the psychedelics space are saying, “No, you actually have to look at this in a completely new way.”
0:44:11 SR: Right. And contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was very sad when he said… He said, “God is dead. WTF.” [chuckle] Yeah, my interviews that I’ve had with people who have drunk Ayahuasca for the first time, I call them first generation Ayahuasca drinkers, lots of people experience some sort of a death. These ego death experiences. You drink a lot of medicine and you feel this intense fear, and then you relinquish that and then you come back with a revitalized and amazing sense of what it is to be alive and that’s enough, that returning back to being alive is the god as it were, you know, people… And then, there isn’t that much dogma that comes after that. Some people do say, “Yes, I saw Jesus,” or, “Yes, I saw Moses. I saw Allah.” I’ve had people say that. But it still is that ancient, ancient cycle that humans have had to almost kill themselves [chuckle] in that way and then return.
0:45:08 PA: One, that’s the process, that’s a ritual of initiation. And that’s what psychedelics have been used, what I have been terming, the first wave of psychedelic use, that’s largely been their utility and usefulness, is they’re a much safer route for that near-death experience. I was just talking to a friend a couple of days ago who just had an operation and she was allergic to something in the operation and almost died in the operating table.
0:45:33 SR: Oh my gosh.
0:45:34 PA: And so obviously, psychedelics are a much safer route than these other near-death experiences that people would often go through. The one that comes to mind for me is have you ever seen, 300? The movie about…
0:45:46 SR: I know what you’re talking about.
0:45:47 PA: Ancient Sparta, where the guy goes out in the beginning and he has a 12-year-old boy, has to go kill a wolf in the woods, or whatever, that was their initiation. Psychedelics are a bit more chill, I think.
0:46:00 SR: Sometimes, sometimes. Again, you see these guys who take [unclear speech], who take Datura. There’s nothing chill about that, man, they’re just really on the brink there.
0:46:10 PA: That’s true. I didn’t think about that.
0:46:11 SR: Yeah. That’s what I hope isn’t lost. I think we should keep psychedelics a right of passage. Print it on a t-shirt, “Keep Psychedelics Weird” and keep them a right of passage because without that, I think we are losing the plot here. And again, this circles back into the whole commodification conversation. When we make it more palatable to the masses. Yes, we take out the vomiting. Yes, we take out the crying and the shitting, but what we also leave out is that amazing feeling of coming back with a renewed perspective on life which brings us back to being better people, hopefully.
0:46:50 PA: Is it appropriate to mainstream psychedelics or this is the point that Bia emphasized, Bia Labate when I was speaking with her last week, or will psychedelics just remain weird? And what’s the balance between those two in providing healing to people who need it, but haven’t come to the recognition or awareness that these are useful tools that can help them? I see it as a really practical way to get people to start to engage with the substance, so they don’t educate themselves about what they’re getting into, with the idea that if they feel comfortable, they’ll then go have that high dose experience. But what I’m hearing from you is, “Let’s focus on the high-dose experience because that’s really where the transformation comes, and if we try to meet people halfway, so to say, it could significantly dilute the actual profundity of psychedelics.”
0:47:41 SR: Yeah, that’s right. I think there’s no one way to like… There’s a place for microdosing, and there’s a place for your five grams and total darkness. Actually Brian Norman, the founder of Symposia also told me the other day, he’s like, “That’s a bad idea to take five grams. That’s a recipe for psychosis.” And that’s also true. So they each have their ups and downs.
0:48:06 PA: So Sophia, what is psychedelic feminism to you?
0:48:11 SR: Hmm, psychedelic feminism. Well, Zoe Helene has been talking about psychedelic feminism for a while. And what I understand it to be is this place where it’s a movement to have women in this conversation about psychedelics. And I don’t know Zoe’s exact definition of it, but intuitively to me, it’s basically this idea that the psychedelic movement has to have diversity, a plurality of voices, women… Everybody, at the frontlines of it and it needs to be built in from the bottom up, or else it’s not… It’s not just gonna fix itself later on as it does go mainstream. Yeah, and for me, I think this whole psychedelic feminism… My perspective of it is that it’s very much, it’s closely linked with eco-feminism. So also, the idea that women having been oppressed, happened with the oppression of the Earth as well. So the extraction of women’s reproductive labor, without good compensation, or same thing for the Earth’s natural resources. So these things are linked very closely together, and this is at least the… This is my version of feminism. And I think that there are many different feminisms, not all of which I agree with. So yeah, when we’re talking about plant medicines, teacher plants, new ecological world views, how does being a woman figure into that? And how does making sure that women aren’t exploited also factor into how we’re gonna make a more robust, ecological system?
0:49:51 PA: And when you say exploited, what do you mean by that?
0:49:53 SR: Well, for example, yeah there’s this… Feminist economists talk about reproductive labor. So behind the scenes, behind every great man, there’s a woman cooking and cleaning, and this, and this and that. And I think it was Benjamin Franklin’s sister who was like, a total badass. And she was doing amazing things as well, and she was a scientist but she couldn’t follow her bliss because she had duties to do at home. And this reproductive labor is considered unpaid labor, and it’s not recognized as something that’s valuable. All of these women’s name aren’t etched into the stones as it were. And yeah, so that’s what I mean when I talk about exploitative labor. And it’s not overtly, but it definitely… Sometimes it definitely is. But when we start to see that there is… There are delicate workings that happen behind the scenes, if we begin to notice that, we also notice that the Earth gives us things that we take for granted. I think they’re very closely related. I will say that definitely with these plant medicines comes unavoidably a conversation of if these plant spirits do have feminine or masculine energies, if that’s so, what does that mean? Is that oppressive somehow? Is that an old… Is that a vestige of Catholicism that these are patriarchal traditions north of the Amazon versus elsewhere?
0:51:22 SR: Who knows, really? Who really knows? And then, of course, there’s another question, something that I’ve been researching for the book, is menstruating women, how does this factor into traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies? Because oftentimes there are strict religious tenets that say that menstruating women, on their moon should not participate in prayer. And you have feminists who say, “Well, hold on a minute, that’s not right. I can do what I want for myself.” I personally, actually lean towards saying, “Well, I will respect their tradition.”
0:51:55 PA: ‘Cause it’s based in probably some element of wisdom?
0:51:58 SR: Maybe yeah, wisdom, experience.
0:52:00 PA: Or practice or… Okay.
0:52:01 SR: Yeah. And again, this is my limited experience with the Secoya for example, is that there are just a few elder shamans left there and they say that they’re extremely sensitive to the energy of a menstruating woman to the point where these old guys bowl over their hammocks and get splitting migraines if somebody has a drop of blood. So say what you will, but I’m not about to start telling these guys that they’re wrong when they’re at the last of their religious lineage, as it were. I think there’s much to be learned there. Having said that, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a conversation with these people about it and ask them critically what’s going on. But I do remember once, this guy said to me and he’s a Secoya guy, somebody was saying, “What’s the one advice, one piece of advice you would give to Western people?” And he would say, “Don’t let menstruating women touch your food.” That’s the one piece of advice he gave to modern, Western people.
0:53:06 PA: [chuckle] Which is ridiculous.
0:53:08 SR: Well, yeah. And to us, but to him it was obviously so important that that’s the first thing that he said. So you’ve gotta wonder, “Wow, what kind of… Jeez, I don’t know what kind of universe supports that thought.” And to me, that’s what I’m interested in.
0:53:23 PA: Because this gets back into the conversation that we were having earlier about, are we really just providing resources to local indigenous people so they can build the world that they need to build? Or are we imposing Western values on them that are based in a scientific, probably materialist reductionist framework? And it’s not one or the other. I think it’s likely both, but what’s the balance there, especially when you have, I think a lot of people who are listening to this, would be like, “Well, some things that indigenous people do are not necessarily great.” Like I know, for example, the Maasai still practice genital mutilation on their women.
0:54:00 SR: Yeah, that’s very, very tricky. Tricky territory. I would actually be interested in the future, in studying more of these things. Taboos are fascinating. What is taboo for one culture is not for another and especially with this realm of psychedelics when you have white blonde girls like me waltzing into villages in the middle of the Amazon and I’m like, “Whoa, why do you guys do that kind of thing?” This is where we really encounter our… Yeah, the Peruvian culture used have this term called, the edge, and it’s used to describe when two discreet ecosystems meet. So for example a coral reef is an edge, so you’ll have… It’s the place where the shallow shores and the deep seas come together, and there’s biological diversity there, so they’re places of tension, but they’re also places of creation and collaboration, and all of this other stuff like that. So I have the feeling that in engaging with these taboos, these edges, these tricky or intercultural spaces, if you can navigate them with the intention of coming out alive, [chuckle] and communicating, then we could curate really, really cool and even more robust knowledge about menstruation, for example, or dieting or whatever it may be. We’ll learn more if we…
0:55:17 PA: And then from an anthropologist’s perspective…
0:55:19 SR: Yes.
0:55:20 PA: I’m gonna just throw this out there, Jared Diamond, who I’m sure you’re familiar with, who wrote “Guns, Germs, and Steel“, also wrote a really good book which named, the name of it always alludes me, but it compares… Do you know which book I’m talking about?
0:55:33 SR: I do, actually. Yeah.
0:55:34 PA: It compares modern and primitive ways of warfare and diet, child-rearing and he talks about what are the pros and cons of each. In other words, what can we learn from indigenous societies and what can we take from a modern context? What are the pros and cons with both? Because I think ultimately that gets into the bigger question that we’ve been surfacing around and just going in and out of which is, how do we combine indigenous wisdom, even if it’s around psychedelics with the modern scientific framework that we now have to actually make calculated, rational decisions about what’s up?
0:56:10 SR: And I don’t think you have to look farther than Mestizo communities in the Amazon as well, who work in urban… Sometimes they work in cities, but they are also descendants of indigenous traditions. If you look at Mestizo Shamanism again, Stephan Beyer, “Singing to the Plants“, incredible book, he talks about this hybridized shamanic technology where people are using stethoscopes in ceremony and they are performative tools to a certain extent, but they also show how Shamanism is itself such a diverse, and changing and adaptable practice, human practice as it were. So I realize that I’ve been giving a very strong emphasis on indigenous but I also realize that that line is very, very much blurred in the realm of Ayahuasca for example.
0:57:02 PA: So as a wrap-up, let’s just… I’d love to hear a little bit more about plans for the next year for you and then also, we’re all very excited about what’s coming in the future for psychedelics. So I’d also love to hear just five years, seven years from now, what’s your vision for your work and what impact you wanna have?
0:57:21 SR: Well, the first thing is the book, “When Plants Dream“. So that’s next year. I love psychedelics, I love this conversation, I love this frontier, and I’d like to be involved in it in some respect, as long as it has a social justice orientation. Again, I’m not interested in being a part of a social movement that isn’t trying to be creative and make new solutions and stuff. I would love to write more about this kind of stuff, bring a more intersectional perspective. So talk about the work that for example, what happens if profits from Ayahuasca retreat centers are then put into land demarcation, language revitalization, all these different things.
0:58:05 SR: My big dream is to find some sort of a financial framework that could actually help people on their own terms, at least get clean water and have food and energy sovereignty, that would be the bomb. And how that happens, I’m not so sure. I have pieces and parts put together but I don’t know how happy I would be having a seven-year path. In the future, I would like to do a PhD, and probably on the political economy of Ayahuasca, so really getting into the history of it’s extraction and then the futures, and we already see the exponential rate of its popularity now. Actually, if whoever’s listening to this, I highly recommend going on Google Trends and typing in, Ayahuasca Retreat, to just see the freaking exponential spike in searches. It’s crazy. I’m very curious to see what that actually looks like in Peru, basically, in the…
0:59:02 PA: Specifically in Peru?
0:59:03 SR: Yeah, because I think it’s been called the mecca of the boom, it’s really where people are going. Most of these retreat centers are very highly concentrated in Iquitos and that jungle city over there. But again, I don’t have any solid research questions yet, only intimations into the flows [chuckle] of energy happening over there, yeah.
0:59:23 PA: Okay. Well, thanks so much for sitting down and…
0:59:26 SR: Thank you, Paul.
0:59:26 PA: I know we’ve had a number of chats anyway, so it’s cool to do this in a more public sphere.
0:59:31 SR: Yes.
0:59:32 PA: And… It was just, yeah, such a pleasure.
0:59:34 SR: Yeah, let’s do this again in seven years and see what happens.
0:59:36 PA: For sure, we can do this again in seven years. If the podcast is still going at that point. We’ll definitely have you back…
0:59:41 SR: We’ll be broadcasting it with bats sonar. [laughter]
0:59:44 PA: Probably. Yeah. Something very techno, technodelic.
0:59:47 SR: Techno-naturey.
0:59:48 PA: Yeah, techno-naturey, techno-shamanistic.
0:59:50 SR: That’s it, that’s it.
0:59:50 PA: Yeah, techno-shamanistic. That’s totally it. Cool. Well, thanks again, Sophia.
0:59:53 SR: Thank you.