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In Conversation with Rachel Harris

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JT: Okay, right, correct me if I'm wrong, it's not exclusively working with these controlled substances.


RH: I didn't. I didn't work at all with the medicines, because it was illegal and I had a professional license I wasn't willing to risk and – I'm not like these women I interviewed. They're really warriors. They're courageous. I’m a little bit of a wimp, thank you! [Both laugh].


I don't have their certainty. They are solid, solidly certain in their intuition and their ability to work with people, and they've done years and years of work on themselves, using the medicines. I was in some of the same places that they were in the late sixties.  And one of the women, when I went to interview her and I had not officially met her when I got out of the car, we recognized each other because we had seen each other around in the sixties.


JT: In the hood.


RH: But these women are very brave, and when they went and did all this experimentation and got all their deep experience with all the medicines at all different dosages, I went to graduate school, I had a different path.


JT: Right, yeah.


RH: So I'm the scribe. They're the – they're the spiritual warriors.


JT: Just speak a little bit,  if you don't mind,  to your focus on women practitioners. I find that personally very refreshing and I'm just really curious. Can you just speak to how you arrived at that point and maybe how you met some of these individuals that got it rolling?


RH: Right. I had also had long, long conversations and knew well some of the leading male guides who worked underground. And I just felt the women had an intuitive, intimate, personal relationship with the plants, with the spirit of the medicines, whether it was ayahuasca or the mushrooms – this was a big part of their intuitive connection that the men didn't really talk about in the same way.


JT: Hmm, that's fascinating.


RH: And yeah, and so I felt – you know, I had written Listening to Ayahuasca in 2017, and a lot of that was about my own experience of my relationship with that plant teacher, which was outside my understanding of the Western world. I heard her voice. Took her advice. I mean it. Yeah, it was mind blowing for me.


JT: Where? Where were you when you had those sessions or session?


RH: You know, I would be in a traditional shamanic group with ayahuasca, but listen, I also heard her voice when I was not in ceremony.


And she was extremely helpful with the research I did on ayahuasca and the writing of that book. She was very helpful.


JT: Right there, right there with you.


RH: She was right there with me. And then when I wrote about the women, it wasn't so specific about ayahuasca. They use all the medicines. So I was – more on my own, and I kind of missed my helper. You know, I missed my connection. So the women talk more about their, their relationship with the plant teachers, I felt than the men tended to, and I felt I wanted, I wanted to explore that intuitive certainty that they had.


And, and I – I – I also want to be careful and contrast it with the people who come up to me at conferences and they say Grandmother Ayahuasca told me to lead ceremonies. And I, you know, I'm used to this now and I say, well, how many ceremonies have you been in? They say five.


And it's like, to really train with the shaman takes at least six to seven years. And so I just almost don't know what to say to them, but some of them claim, ohh this is my intuitive certainty, and so there's a difference.


The women I interviewed, yes, they were highly intuitive and they have a real sense of certainty. And listen, they also consult with medical doctors and psychopharmacologists and psychotherapists, and they refer their people to therapy. They don't do the therapy. They're not there as therapists – they’re guides, they’re spiritual warriors. And they consult with each other and do what in the therapy world is called peer supervision. They're not alone with their fabulous intuition. And so you want to be careful, when you choose to work with someone, that it's someone who's very well connected – even if they're not a doctor or a psychotherapist, they have access.


JT: And cross-referencing peer review, that's lovely. So with your experiences introducing the plant, and I love how you refer to her, maybe you could talk a little bit about – well, there's this whole trend, microdosing versus heroic doses, and could you just speak to that?


RH: Yeah, yeah. You know, a paper came out recently talking about, I think it's a neglected approach – the authors were European physicians and therapists, and they were talking about the psychologic approach. And in the United States, we have the cowboy approach for heroic doses and the psychedelic dose, and the more the better, because we're a cowboy culture. 


And Europe, yeah – in Europe, they have a very different protocol, and it's true, it's not as cost-effective, but it's an alternative process, and what they do are – they're not microdoses, their journeys, but they're lower doses than what we tend to do here. 


And they’re integrated more into ongoing therapy. So you might spend a year with a therapist, or maybe two years – and already that's far more extensive than the protocols, the research protocols we're doing in the States. But you would have one or two therapy sessions a week, and maybe once a month, you would do a journey with that therapist.


JT: Okay.


RH: At a lower dose – not a dose that's geared toward, you know, ego dissolution and a psychedelic blowout; you would do a lower dose. So that's a psychologic approach, and it's very valuable. This would probably, because of my interest in therapy, this would be my preference – if I were seeking a therapeutic process with these medicines, with the entheogens, I would want to do it this way. So that's really a therapeutic ongoing process, but you know, that's for the elite who can afford it.


So I understand the need to have cost-effective treatment and that's what we're researching in the States. But a microdose is completely different. A microdose by definition is non-perceptual, so you don't feel it.


JT: You spoke about your earlier experiences at university with LSD, and I'm just wondering if you can speak a little bit about synthesized versus plant-based medicine, if I could call it that.  Do you have preferences, or is your go-to drug ayahuasca?


RH: You know, I met somebody at the MAPS [Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] conference in Denver in June, and it was like, “Hi, how are you? What's your medicine?” It's sort of like, “Hi, how are you? What's your astrological sign?”


But I actually could answer him. I mean, there's no question I'm connected to ayahuasca. So that is the answer to – that's really my medicine.


You know, there was a team in the States who wanted to do research on ayahuasca. And so in order to control for the potency and dosage of a plant medicine that varies tremendously, they were going to do what the researchers do in Spain and in Brazil, and they were going to use a freeze-dried capsule in order to control for the potency and dose. Freeze-dried plant medicine, freeze-dried ayahuasca. 


And they wanted to use an authentic indigenous shaman for the ceremonies, and the shaman looked at the capsules and said, “The spirit’s not in there.”


But I have to tell you, one of the women in my study who I interviewed feels that she has a relationship with MDMA. And that's, you know, that's in a chemical form that she's working with. It originally comes from sassafras trees, but she has mostly worked with the chemical, and she feels she has a relationship with it. So there you have the other side. 


I keep answering your questions giving you sort of both sides: these are not simple medicines to work with. They’re complicated.


JT: Right, so the practitioners, the women that you interviewed, you gave that one example of the MDMA, and did you find there was a trend? Did they lean towards, like, mushrooms or peyote? 


RH: Right. It was a variety. And what I did is, you know, some people think that ohh, I interviewed the women and wrote a chapter about each woman. No, I didn't do that. I really spent a lot of time with each woman and we talked about life. We talked about their lives and their work and their work on themselves.


And you know, I spent four or five days with one of the women, and I would go back and interview them again and again, and call them on the phone and clarify things, and what I did is, I wove what they told me into different themes.


And we talked about childhood spiritual experiences, as I mentioned before, but also their own training, their apprenticeships and their own somatic intuition, their own experiencing. And so I really wove different themes throughout the book.


And then the last couple of chapters, I wrote more as a psychologist from my own thinking about integration.


JT: What range of cultural backgrounds and different countries did these women come from?


RH: Yeah, I wasn't very conscious about this process and I ended up with one African American, two Native Americans, one Indigenous Peruvian-born woman, and I think eleven Anglo – I might be forgetting someone, but I still ended up with a range. It's very interesting that I did, and you asked me, how did I find them? Some of the women found me after they read the ayahuasca book. And we would get into these deep conversations and a friendship would develop, and out of those relationships and those referrals to other people, I found that I wanted to interview them, and I wanted to support their voice in the culture. You know what I say is they're, I think, triply silenced. They're silenced because they're women, because they're older and –


JT: – Because of the drug and because of the field.


RH: – And yes, because they're underground, so they can't speak publicly.


So I really wanted to support them and give them a voice, and they were really my only audience when I promised them, and I lived up to it, that I would send them the manuscript before I sent it to my editor. And I did that. And they changed very little. But they did change their pseudonyms. I had just given them all pseudonyms that I thought were quite brilliant, and they changed them. Many of them named themselves after a godmother or or a sister who had passed away. The names were really meaningful for them. And of course I respected them.

JT: Was there anything that really surprised you in the research?


RH: You know, it really – honestly – what's surprised? Well, I guess I am still in awe. I have to say I'm in awe of these women and their, their, their energy and and their capacity for this kind of work. I mean - you know, they're up all night with people. And I like to go to bed when it's dark. I mean, you know, I'm not cut out for this kind of work.


And they're so solid in their own experience, but I think what surprised me the most was that I changed as the result of spending so much time with them – and this has nothing to do with any of the entheogens or a psychedelic anything. It's just, spending so much time with them, I began to experience the world differently – much less cause and effect, and much more ethereal, and so much more open to a shamanic point of view about energy and also – that's my oven going off.


JT: Go grab it.


RH: No, no. The eggplant is in the oven.


JT: Okay, if you need to go adjust or check.


[RH leaves and returns].


JT: So that's your empathy at play – like you found that you were sort of taking on, you were absorbing their perspective.


RH: Yes, right. And oftentimes ,after a whole day spent with someone, I would feel like I can't, I'm not ready, to drive. And I had one of these experiences with the two Native American women. I spent 12 hours with them, 9:00 to 9:00. And then, an hour to drive home where I was staying and –


JT: – And this is just conversation. You're not taking any dose.


RH: No, nothing's involved. And I had sat at the dining room table with them and we'd gone out to lunch and we'd gone out to dinner. I mean, we moved around a bit, but when I was in the house, I was in the dining room, and as I'm getting ready to leave, and they just politely asked, “Do you need to use the bathroom before you go?”, and I say – I don't know how you're going to put this in the journal [both laugh] – I say, “I don't know!” 


And so they laughed and they sent me. They said go use the bathroom. I did have to go. They were right. I come out and they say, “Come with us”, and they take me into their ceremony room, which I had not been in before, I had only been in the dining room. There was a door off the dining room, but it was closed and I didn't ask for a tour of the house. We walk in this room and it's filled with their shamanic artifacts.


JT: Could you describe that briefly?


RH: Well, there's eagle feathers and stones and amulets and – I can't even remember everything that was in there, but there were shelves and shelves,  and clay pots, and artifacts and artwork from Native Americans. And I stood in the middle [of the room] and they cleared my energy with eagle feathers and a fan, to help me get ready to drive home. 


I thought, “This is one of those moments,” you know, and that I could have missed this completely. And you know, if I had just walked out, “La dee da, thank you!,” I would have missed this experience.


So it moved the whole day and that whole interview into another realm, and it also changed me. It's really – it's very fascinating. I experienced an opening, as a result of writing this book, that I didn't expect.


In Conversation with Rachel Harris

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