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Stumbling upon the website also made me appreciate just how far the culture of psychedelics has evolved since the 1950s and 1960s. Implicit in these documents, it seemed to me, was the recognition that these powerful, anarchic medicines can and have been misused and that if they are to do more good than harm, they require a cultural vessel of some kind: protocols, rules, and rituals that together form a kind of Apollonian counterweight to contain and channel their sheer Dionysian force. Modern medicine, with its controlled trials and white-coated clinicians and DSM diagnoses, offers one such container; the underground guides offer another.

• • • YET THE FIRST COUPLE of guides I interviewed did not fill me with confidence. Maybe it was because I was so new to the territory, and nervous about the contemplated journey, but I kept hearing things in their spiels that set off alarm bells and made me want to run in the opposite direction.

Andrei, the first guide I interviewed, was a gruff Romanian-born psychologist in his late sixties with decades of experience; he had worked with a friend of a friend of a friend. We met at his office in a modest neighborhood of small bungalows and neat lawns in a city in the Pacific Northwest. A hand-lettered sign on the door instructed visitors to remove their shoes and come upstairs to the dimly lit waiting room. A kilim rug had been pinned to the wall.

Instead of a table piled with old copies of People or Consumer Reports, I found a small shrine populated with spiritual artifacts from a bewildering variety of traditions: a Buddha, a crystal, a crow’s wing, a brass bowl for burning incense, a branch of sage. At the back of the shrine stood two framed photographs, one of a Hindu guru I didn’t recognize and the other of a Mexican curandera I did: María Sabina.

This was not the last time I would encounter such a confusing tableau. In fact every guide I met maintained some such shrine in the room where he or she worked, and clients were often asked to contribute an item of personal significance before embarking on their journeys. What I was tempted to dismiss as a smorgasbord of equal-opportunity New Age tchotchkes, I would eventually come to regard more sympathetically, as the material expression of the syncretism prevalent in the psychedelic community. Members of this community tend to be more spiritual than religious in any formal sense, focused on the common core of mysticism or “cosmic consciousness” that they believe lies behind all the different religious traditions. So what appeared to me as a bunch of conflicting symbols of divinity are in fact different means of expressing or interpreting the same underlying spiritual reality, “the perennial philosophy” that Aldous Huxley held to undergird all religions and to which psychedelics supposedly can offer direct access.

After a few minutes, Andrei bounded into the room, and when I stood to offer my hand, he surprised me with a bear hug. A big man with a full head of hastily combed gray hair, Andrei was wearing a blue-checked button-down over a yellow T-shirt that struggled to encompass the globe of his belly. Speaking with a thick accent, he managed to seem both amiable and disconcertingly blunt.

Andrei had his first experience with LSD at twenty-one, soon after he came out of the army; a friend had sent it from America, and the experience transformed him. “It made me realize we live a very limited version of what life is.” That realization propelled him on a journey through Eastern religion and Western psychology that eventually culminated in a doctorate in psychology. When military service threatened to interrupt his psycho-spiritual journey, he “decided I have to make my own choices” and deserted.

Andrei eventually left Bucharest for San Francisco, bound for what he had heard was “the first New Age graduate school”—the California Institute of Integral Studies. Founded in 1968, the institute specializes in “transpersonal psychology,” a school of therapy with a strong spiritual orientation rooted in the work of Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow as well as the “wisdom traditions” of the East and the West, including Native American healing and South American shamanism. Stanislav Grof, a pioneer of both transpersonal and psychedelic therapy, has been on the faculty for many years. In 2016, the institute began offering the nation’s first certificate program in psychedelic therapy.

As part of his degree program, Andrei had to undergo psychotherapy and found his way to a Native American “doing medicine work” in the Four Corners as well as the Bay Area. “Whoopee!” he recalled thinking. “Because of my LSD experience, I knew it was viable.” Medicine work became his vocation.

“I help people find out who they are so they can live their lives fully. I used to work with whoever came to me, but some were too fucked up. If you’re on the edge of psychosis, this work can push you over. You need a strong ego in order to let go of it and then be able to spring back to your boundaries.” He mentioned he’d once been sued by a troubled client who blamed him for a subsequent breakdown. “So I decided, I don’t work with crazies anymore. And as soon as I made this statement to the universe, they stopped coming.” These days he works with a lot of young people in the tech world. “I’m the dangerous virus of Silicon Valley. They come to me wondering, ‘What am I doing here, chasing the golden carrot in the golden cage?’ Many of them go on to do something more meaningful with their lives. [The experience] opens them up to the spiritual reality.”

It’s hard to say exactly what put me off working with Andrei, but oddly enough it was less the New Agey spiritualism than his nonchalance about a process I still found exotic and scary. “I don’t play the psychotherapy game,” he told me, as blasé as a guy behind a deli counter wrapping and slicing a sandwich. “None of that blank screen. In mainstream psychology, you don’t hug. I hug. I touch them. I give advice. I have people come stay with us in the forest.” He works with clients not here in the office but in a rural location deep in the woods of the Olympic Peninsula. “Those are all big no-no’s.” He shrugged as if to say, so what?

I shared some of my fears. He’d heard it all before. “You may not get what you want,” he told me, “but you’ll get what you need.” I gulped mentally. “The main thing is to surrender to the experience, even when it gets difficult. Surrender to your fear. The biggest fears that come up are the fear of death and the fear of madness. But the only thing to do is surrender. So surrender!” Andrei had named my two biggest fears, but his prescription seemed easier said than done.

I was hoping for a guide who exuded perhaps a little more tenderness and patience, I realized, yet I wasn’t sure I should let Andrei’s gruff manner put me off. He was smart, he had loads of experience, and he was willing to work with me. Then he told a story that decided the matter.

It was about working with a man my age who became convinced during his psilocybin journey he was having a heart attack. “‘I’m dying,’ he said, ‘call 911! I feel it, my heart!’ I told him to surrender to the dying. That Saint Francis said that in dying you gain eternal life. When you realize death is just another experience, there’s nothing more to worry about.”

Okay, but what if it had been a real heart attack? Out there in the woods in the middle of the Olympic Peninsula? Andrei mentioned that an aspiring guide he was training had “once asked me, ‘What do you do if someone dies?’” I don’t know what I expected him to say, but Andrei’s reply, delivered with one of his most matter-of-fact shrugs, was not it.

“You bury him with all the other dead people.”

I told Andrei I would be in touch.

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