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Zeff soon began incorporating a range of different psychedelics in his practice and found that the medicines helped his patients break through their defenses, bringing buried layers of unconscious material to the surface, and achieve spiritual insights, often in a single session. The results were so “fantastic,” he told Stolaroff, that when the federal government put psychedelics on schedule 1 in 1970, prohibiting their use for any purpose, Zeff made the momentous decision to continue his work underground.

This was not easy. “Many times I’d be in much agony falling asleep, and wake up in the morning and have it hit me,” he told Stolaroff. “‘Jacob [his pseudonym], for Christ’s sake what are you exposing yourself to all this shit for? You don’t need it.’ Then I’d look and I’d say, ‘Look at the people. Look what’s happening to them.’ I’d say, ‘Is it worth it?’ . . . Inevitably I’d come back with ‘Yeah, it’s worth it’ . . . Whatever you have to go through. It’s worth it to produce these results!”

During his long career, Zeff helped codify many of the protocols of underground therapy, setting forth the “agreements” guides typically make with their clients—regarding confidentiality (strict), sexual contact (forbidden), obedience to the therapist’s instructions during the session (absolute), and so on—and developing many of the ceremonial touches, such as having participants take the medicine from a cup: “a very important symbol of the transformation experience.” Zeff also described the departures from conventional therapeutic practice common among psychedelic guides. He believed it was imperative that guides have personal experience of any medicine they administer. (Aboveground guides either don’t seek such experience or don’t admit to it.) He came to believe that guides should not try to direct or manipulate the psychedelic journey, allowing it instead to find its own course and destination. (“Just leave ’em alone!” he tells Stolaroff.) Guides should also be willing to drop the analyst’s mask of detachment, offering their personalities and emotions, as well as a comforting touch or hug to the client undergoing a particularly challenging trip.

In his introduction to The Secret Chief Revealed, Myron Stolaroff sketched the influence of underground guides like Leo Zeff on the field as a whole, suggesting that the legitimate psychedelic research that resumed in the late 1990s, when he was writing, had “evolved as a result of anecdotal evidence from underground therapists” like Zeff, as well as from the first wave of psychedelic research done in the 1950s and 1960s. Psychedelic researchers working in universities today are understandably reluctant to acknowledge it, but there is a certain amount of traffic between the two worlds, and a small number of figures who move, somewhat gingerly, back and forth between them. For example, some prominent underground therapists have been recruited to help train a new cohort of psychedelic guides to work in university trials of psychedelic drugs. When the Hopkins team wanted to study the role of music in the guided psilocybin session, it reached out to several underground guides, surveying their musical practices.

No one had any idea how many underground guides were working in America, or exactly what that work consisted of, until 2010. That was the year James Fadiman, the Stanford-trained psychologist who took part in psychedelic research at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park in the early 1960s, attended a conference on psychedelic science in the Bay Area. The conference was organized by MAPS, with sponsorship from Heffter, the Beckley Foundation, and Bob Jesse’s Council on Spiritual Practices, the three other nonprofits that funded most of the psychedelic research under way at the time. In a Holiday Inn in San Jose, the conference brought together more than a thousand people, including several dozen scientists (who presented their research, complete with PowerPoint slides), a number of guides drawn from both the university trials and the underground, and a great many more “psychonauts”—people of all ages who make regular use of psychedelics in their lives, whether for spiritual, therapeutic, or “recreational” purposes. (As Bob Jesse is always quick to remind me whenever I use that word, “recreational” doesn’t necessarily mean frivolous, careless, or lacking in intention. Point taken.)

James Fadiman came to the MAPS conference “on the science track,” to give a talk about the value of the guided entheogenic journey. He wondered if there were many underground guides in the audience, so at the end of his talk he announced that there would be a meeting of guides at 8:00 the following morning.

“I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 expecting to see maybe five people, but a hundred showed up! It was staggering.”

It would probably be too strong to describe this far-flung and disparate group as a community, much less an organization, yet my interviews with more than a dozen of them suggest they are professionals who share an outlook, a set of practices, and even a code of conduct. Soon after the meeting in San Jose, a “wiki” appeared on the Internet—a collaborative website where individuals can share documents and together create new content. (Fadiman included the URL in his 2011 book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.) Here, I found two items of particular interest, as well as several sub-wikis—documents under development—that hadn’t had a new entry for several years; it could be that public disclosure of the site in Fadiman’s book had led the creators to abandon it or move elsewhere online.

The first item was a draft charter: “to support a category of profound, prized experiences becoming more available to more people.” These experiences are described as “unitive consciousness” and “non-dual consciousness,” among other terms, and several non-pharmacological modalities for achieving these states are mentioned, including meditation, breathwork, and fasting. “A principal tool of the Guides is the judicious use of a class of psychoactive substances” known to be “potent spiritual catalysts.”

The website offers would-be guides links to printable forms for legal releases, ethical agreements, and medical questionnaires. (“We don’t have very good insurance,” one guide told me, with a sardonic smile. “So we’re very careful.”) There’s also a link to a thoughtful “Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides,” which acknowledges the psychological and physical risks of journeying and emphasizes the guide’s ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the client. Recognizing that during “primary religious practices” “participants may be especially open to suggestion, manipulation, and exploitation,” the code states that it is incumbent upon the guide to disclose all risks, obtain consent, guarantee confidentiality, protect the safety and health of participants at all times, “safeguard against . . . ambition” and self-promotion, and accommodate clients “without regard to their ability to pay.”

Perhaps the most useful document on the website is the “Guidelines for Voyagers and Guides.”* The guidelines represent a compendium of half a century’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom about how best to approach the psychedelic journey, whether as a participant or as a guide. It covers the basics of set and setting; mental and physical preparation for the session; potential drug interactions; the value of formulating an intention; what to expect during the experience, both good and bad; the stages of the journey; what can go wrong and how to deal with frightening material; the supreme importance of post-session “integration”; and so on.

For me, standing on the threshold of such an experience, it was reassuring to learn that the underground community of psychedelic guides, which I had assumed consisted of a bunch of individuals all doing pretty much their own thing, operated like professionals, working from a body of accumulated knowledge and experience and in a set of traditions that had been handed down from psychedelic pioneers such as Al Hubbard, Timothy Leary, Myron Stolaroff, Stan Grof, and Leo Zeff. They had rules and codes and agreements, and many elements of the work had been more or less institutionalized.

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