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In Conversation with Rachel Harris

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It was a distinct pleasure to speak with Rachel Harris this past September. Our meeting was beamed, via Zoom, to my place in Toronto from her home on Swan’s Island – one in a cluster of islands off the coast of Maine that also claims the family cottage of the architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller. 


Something about the tang of ocean saltwater must be drawing visionaries. Harris is a psychotherapist with a practice of many decades, who has become fascinated by the use of psychedelics in therapeutic processes. In 2017, she published Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety; and earlier this year she followed up with Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground, a study of psychedelic female shamans. (Make sure to read the excerpt of Swimming that follows this interview).


Our conversation was arranged speedily after I got in touch with Rachel’s publisher: a hurricane was about to bear down on Maine, and Rachel was concerned that she could soon lose her internet. 


What a lovely opportunity and privilege it was to connect as we did – with a hurricane on the way and an eggplant in the oven, as Rachel prepared for a guest who was scheduled to fly in by small plane through big weather.


And how wonderful it also was to get her perspective and a glimpse of her deep knowledge, as well as – through her mediation – the perspectives of the "women warriors" who tap into ancient practice on the forefront of psychedelic research and understanding. – Jamie Thompson

Jamie Thompson: Greetings, Rachel, and I just wanted to extend a warm welcome from The Daughter’s Grimoire, and thank you so much for taking time to join us today!


Rachel Harris: Oh, sure, I'm pleased to be here with you!


JT: I understand there's some big weather moving in, in Maine – are you okay there?


RH: Well, I think the biggest risk for me are falling trees. If I don't get hit by a tree, I'll be fine!


JT: I just drove back from Montreal and there was a section where the treetops were lopped off on the pine trees, and I couldn't figure it out, and then I realized we have had some microclimates, little twisters, that have gone through, and it was really shocking to see the trees taken down, so I trust that you come through the next couple of days fine. Do you live there off the coast of Maine year-round?


RH: Well, I'll be a few months in New York where I have family, and then I'll be in California, which is sort of the Mecca of drug activity, of psychedelic drugs.


JT: Yeah, just a little history there [both laugh].


RH: Oh yeah, I mean 50 years later, 60 years later, it's still, you know, “Come to San Francisco with flowers in your hair” [laughing continues], it's still a little bit like that, there's a lot of activity –


JT: – Haight-Ashbury, ya gotta love it – 


RH: – Hmm, as a matter of fact, I actually worked with someone who grew up in an indigenous village and he happens to live out there and he does ceremonies because he was trained by his godfather, who was a shaman in this indigenous village, and he had one guy who was coming to him frequently to sit in ceremony, but on the off-nights he was going everywhere else, taking all kinds of other psychedelics. And that's what the Bay Area is like: it's like a smorgasbord of psychedelics. And my friend, the shaman, who's quite serious about the whole thing, said to this guy, “Go ahead, go and explore. And then when you're finished exploring, if you want to settle into serious study, then come back.”


He protected the energy of the ayahuasca group from the influx of all the other medicines that this guy was experimenting with, and it was a lovely way to handle it.


JT: Well, it's an interesting point that you bring up just right out of the gate – you know, that sort of the pop aspect, the popular, recreational use of of hallucinogens, versus the sacred: maybe could you expand on that a little bit?


RH: Yeah, well, I've got I think at least a dozen years on you [both laugh], so I really was there in the sixties and you know, I would never – I'm not sure what kind of music you play, but forgive me, I would never go to a rock concert, straight or high, that was never my –


JT: – I'm classically trained, as far as it goes –


RH: – But if you think of all the people who did drugs at those concerts, and then they, you know, went into government and law. And, you know, they grew up. And is that generation so wonderful? No, I – I'm kind of ashamed of it, I'm one of the first years of the baby boomers, and I don't think we've been so great. Nobody got enlightened, exactly, at a rock concert. So it's very different to do the medicines in a serious way with a guide, where you're intentionally turning inward.


JT: Yeah, yeah.


RH: And you know, as I say that – and I tend to be very serious about the whole thing – but I do actually have a friend who followed the Grateful Dead for many years, Harvard[-educated] lawyer – who never practiced law, mind you – and he traveled with the Grateful Dead. And I guess about five years ago, now, his doctor called him into the office and said, “You have one year to live.”  Yeah, he had – it wasn't lung cancer, it was like the membrane around the lungs, and he was not going to survive.


And my friend, sitting in the office, gets this news, and he says, “Okay, well I've done a lot of acid in my life: I'm ready.” So there you have, this is the other side of what I said, is that here is someone who most of the tripping he did was following the Grateful Dead, and the whole wild thing, and yet he was prepared to face his own mortality and he was – as we say now – he was only 70, so, you know, it's not like I think of that as young, but it's certainly better than I am, and he should have had a longer life. And so that his life was cut short and he was still ready? So to be able to respond immediately to that kind of a diagnosis and prognosis is pretty amazing.


JT: So what you're suggesting is that for this individual – and it is a very individual, case-by-case kind of situation – 


RH: – It's case by case –


JT: – but for this person that you're describing, he cited that, if I can just paraphrase, that from his use of LSD, he felt grounded and emotionally in his own mortality and place in the universe, that he could face this diagnosis – 


RH: – very, a very spiritual place to accept so quickly his own mortality, and you know, an old friend of mine says, “This is the final exam.” How do we deal with our own death and dying? And hopefully – I mean, we hope that these medicines, these journeys that we take, will prepare us for the final exam that we face.


So I'm sort of saying two things I'm saying. One thing, you know, [to] be very serious about it, and that's what makes a difference, and it really is therapeutic with a guide. And then on the other hand, there are these incredible examples of the benefits, the in vivo benefit of LSD experience.


JT: Right, and then a whole spectrum in between, I guess, too –


RH: – Yeah, it's not like there's only one way – it's a very complicated, individual kind of thing.


JT: So when did you initially have an interest? Was your curiosity piqued by psychedelics, or by your practice – your interest in therapy and the practice that you've developed, were they in tandem, or did one come first?


RH: No, – mine came out of childhood spiritual experiences, and I asked the women I interviewed [for Swimming in the Sacred, New World Library, 2023] – I interviewed women who'd been working underground for at least 20 years, and many of them for 30 and 40 years, and I wanted to know exactly the question you're asking: did they come to this out of their own spiritual experience, or did they become more spiritual when they discovered the psychedelics; and really, they had amazing childhood spiritual experiences, and I had my own, so –


JT: – I see, and could you give a couple of examples, just so I - I'm on the same page with you here? [Brief pause]. Take your time. We got lots of time [both laugh].


RH: Yeah, right – I think here's the one that's most universal: I remember driving, so I was at least 16 – that's probably about how old I was – and I remember at a stoplight, I'm stopped and, ohh, an older – I’m 16 – an older woman walks across the the street in the crosswalk, and all of a sudden I felt myself merge with her. Wow, and experience her aging body. And she walked slowly across the street, and I just sat – I think I was alone in the car – I just sat there quietly and realized I'm in her body. It was really quite extraordinary, and it was those kinds of experiences.


JT: Where were you, what city were you in? Do you remember? 


RH: I was in a small town in Pennsylvania, where I grew up.


JT: Okay. And the person?


RH: It was just – I had no idea who it was, she was a complete stranger.


JT: Was it like déjà vu? 


RH: This is merging, this is merging…


JT: Wow, and have you experienced that at all in different circumstances?


RH: Well, you know, I have as a psychologist. I have both the research and the clinical background. So I had a private practice for about 40 years, and you know, I did a lot of intuitive merging with my clients. So it's something that I've used in my work and it's - it's a - a gift, and a skill that I've developed.


JT: It's an openness, a kind of empathy that you're describing.


RH: Thanks, it's a very profound empathy. It's - it's more than just: “Ohh, I feel your pain,” right?  Right, you remember our president, our baby-boomer president? It's actually leaving my body, and experiencing a different body. Now the question would be did that older woman feel – yeah – anything? You know, I didn't get out of the car and interview her. I would now, of course, but back when I was sixteen, I wasn't quite the researcher, but I had those kinds of interesting experiences that led me to understand there were many different states of consciousness. I might not have said it that way then, but I understood there were different ways of being, and when I interviewed the women and asked them about their childhood experiences, they reported really fascinating ones.


JT: Are there a couple that spring to mind? And I'm sure this is in your book.


RH: It's in the book, but really they were there. Honestly. They were kind of mine.


One woman just quietly said she had an initiation when she was age six, and I don't know what that meant exactly, but it was the kind of thing that was not in this – didn't happen in this world. It's not like I went to an ice cream shop! It wasn't that kind of reality; it was in a different reality. 


And another woman said that she got a glimpse of a different state of consciousness, she understood the experience as the spiritual initiation. That's quite a statement about a six-year-old’s experience. Another woman talked about being able to travel and meet different entities, and this was as a child, with no medicines involved at all. So when she did discover psychedelics as an adult, she sort of already understood how to travel –


JT: – Yeah, navigate, yeah –


RH: – And, and navigate, yeah, and she had a lot of experience talking to trees. I mean, this was really kind of unusual as a child. She spent a lot of time alone, so these were unusual experiences.


JT: Do you remember when the light turned green when you were in the intersection?


RH: When I came back into myself, that wasn't as noteworthy. I don't – I mean, certainly I moved on, but –


JT: – For sure, it would sound disorienting, you know?


RH: I know, I don't remember the coming back into myself and driving the car. It's interesting. Also, I was a new driver so it was – everything was sort of new, that's part of it, too.


JT: Absolutely! And so, you would make no qualms about stating that you've used hallucinogens and LSD, and when did that start?


RH: Well, I, I was in - yeah, when I graduated from college, I went right to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. It was 1968, so there were, you know, the drugs were in the water [both laugh], practically – this was in Big Sur and we had, because it was an excellent institute, we had access to really good-quality psychedelics, and we did them in nature, so we didn't - we didn't use the research protocol that's used today where you wear eye shades and have music earphones. And we didn't do that then, but –


JT: – Ohh my gosh, I don't do that!


RH: Well, there's something to that, to that turning inward, that's quite – but we were, we did them seriously for spiritual purposes in nature, so that's what I remember the most.


JT: And how many typically in a group? Was this just off campus? Big Sur is so beautiful, you can't go wrong!


RH: Yeah, you can't go wrong [both laugh], and it was always with friends, little groups of friends, it was always kind of private and quiet.


JT: And so it wasn't a party vibe, it was more meditative –


RH: No, it was never – it was not recreational, it was for spiritual purposes.


JT: That's lovely. Yeah, and your feelings on, like you've mentioned, having a guide in this, using psychedelics as a catalyst for the sacred and for personal insight – can you speak to solo versus in a small group like you were just describing? I mean, are there different experiences if you're on your own walking through the woods, for example, as opposed to with the group?


RH: Right. Well, yes, it all makes a difference, and it's all unpredictable. I gave a talk the other day and somebody in the audience – I'm always surprised how many older people are really curious and interested, they have no history and no background – and this older guy asked, is there any way to guarantee you won't have a bad trip?


JT: Yeah, sure, yeah [both laugh].


RH: No, and I – I wish I knew a way! You never know, and there's always a risk.


You want to feel you’re as safe as possible, so for different people, they feel safer in a group, and some feel safer in a one-to-one.


So it's where you feel the safest. That's a real primary variable, but I think therapeutically, the protocol with the turning inward with the music, everything kind of directing to an inner experience, is generally considered what's therapeutic, what leads to the best therapeutic outcome, which is generally measured by reduction in symptoms. So the research is all based on, you qualify because you have a certain diagnosis, PTSD or treatment-resistant depression, and then after a couple of journeys and some supportive preparation and debriefing integration that you do, you take the paper-and-pencil test and your symptoms have reduced so you no longer have that diagnosis – and the results have been absolutely amazing, and they're still experimenting for what diagnoses can these medicines help? 


So as much as I’m in favor of the kind of lifelong use underground – it's unfortunate that it's had to be underground – I'm also in favor of the research protocols, which are really helping people who have suffered for decades with depression or PTSD and and and are really relieved of symptoms, which is quite amazing. I mean, one of the most amazing studies is they use psilocybin, this is at Johns Hopkins [University School of Medicine], for tobacco addiction, smoking cigarettes, which is one of these major costs in terms of mortality, and also healthcare expense, and they have an abstinence rate of like 80%.


JT: Sign me up! [Both laugh].

RH: So that's remarkable. That is, yeah. But I don't think you would achieve that if you take mushrooms and walk through the woods. I think the research protocol of turning inward is really a big part of it. I mean, remember, this is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, so it's in a different context. The medicines are used in a different container than the way I did it in the sixties, which was in nature – that was different.

JT: Right. And so your training as a psychotherapist, that began afterwards, then?

RH: No, no – my training as a psychotherapist really consisted of my years at Esalen. I avoided the graduate-school training, and that's how I got into research.

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In Conversation with Rachel Harris

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