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In Conversation with Rachel Harris

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JT: So that kind of experience allowed you to integrate all the information that you were absorbing through your conversation.


RH: But it allowed me to leave my western conditioning.


JT: Your baggage at the door.


RH: My baggage, my Western, you know, cause-and-effect, linear baggage [both laugh], and be just more open to another way of being in the world.


JT: Did you have some skepticism going into the early stages? Is that part of the baggage that you left?


RH: I knew these women were experts at what they did. I didn't have any skepticism. But they are not as burdened as I am by Western scientific thinking. You know, I'm a trained researcher as well as a therapist. I'm really deeply entrenched in western thinking: they're not.


JT: You mentioned that at the end of Swimming in the Sacred, in the last couple of chapters, that you wanted to have your voice in the mix, and express your opinion, so I didn't mean to ask a leading question about being skeptical. But how would you say that your perspective – whether it's Western-influenced or however you might describe it – how does that differ from the perspective of the women who you interviewed?


RH: Well, the big difference is I'm a therapist, and they don't think that way. So if somebody's struggling or doesn't understand the message they got from the journey, one of these women may say, “Well, spend more time in the forest,” or, “Maybe you need and you want to consider having another journey.” I would say, “Let's talk about that.” You know, this is how therapists talk, so I have a very different conceptual framework for what integration looks like.


JT: Could you equate dream interpretation to journey?


RH: Well, I always ask about dreams. I feel like they're first cousins. 


JT: They're, my dreams are my religion. Yeah, you're preaching to the converted.


RH: Yeah, right! So I think, you know, they're closely related to the journey experience and sometimes they bleed through, and they, dreams, help explain what you experienced in a journey, and vice versa. I think they're very helpful. To work therapeutically with people having these antigenic experiences, you have to be able to recognize the shift in consciousness. When somebody has a numinous experience, that's a major shift, it's a mystical experience. It changes everything, and you have to be able to see that when you're sitting with them in a therapy room. 


And I just watched the educational videos from the Berkeley Psychedelic Center, and there's one video – I can send you the video – these are free. Yeah, and it's this lovely professor from the medical school. I think he's an internal medicine doc, and he's talking as a professor. And then he veers a little bit and he begins to talk about sacred ceremonies. And then he talks about his teacher, and you see his face light up and he shifts his state of consciousness. This is really a wonderful training video, not so much in the content, not so much what he's saying, but in the shift that you see in him – and therapists have to be able to recognize that shift. So he was sitting and being interviewed by a dear friend of mine, who's actually going to try and fly here through this hurricane [tomorrow] – I don't know if they'll get here.


JT: Oh gosh. Okay, that sounds like an adventure!


RH: Yeah, gosh, that's right. But he's a cognitive scientist and I sent him the video back and I said this was the shift, this is the teaching in this video.


JT: This is the moment, right?


RH: The moment, and it's this: you just see him light up, his whole face changes! And when you're sitting with a client in therapy who's had this kind of experience, you want to stay with that numinous experience, you want to, you want to join them almost, and it's not that you interpret it or say what it means or anything like that, but you want to really acknowledge it and…


JT: … Because they may not recognize that their whole face has lit up –


RH: – They may not, and that's what will work on them from the inside – the memory of that experience – and that will continue to work in them and unfold. And it was Carl Jung who said the real treatment is in the approach to the numinous, to the mystical, that's the healing.


JT: I've always loved that word and I've always had trouble with it for some reason, so yeah, I really appreciate you explaining that further, that's really lovely content.


For anyone who's leery – whether they've used it before or not – for any of our readers who are hesitant – like I have a number of friends who like to trip. They used to and they, they regard it as something from their youth.


Is there any kind of suggestion that you would have if it's something that they intuitively think that they might want to try again, but they're holding back (and I might be speaking for myself, yeah!).


RH: Well, the most important thing is that you find a situation where you really feel safe, right? And that means that whoever you're working with has done a really comprehensive medical interview. And many people, one of the first medicines that they're given is MDMA, and that can raise the heart rate and the blood pressure, so you want to have a real conversation about medical history and your status, and also there are some psychiatric exclusions – for some people, it's too risky.


JT: Yeah, no, it can be triggering, not helpful.


RH: Right.


JT: Any other kind of considerations, perhaps through the women that you were interviewing – I’m just wondering if there’s a particular instance where it was somebody older who was new to using psychedelics, and tried it for the first time.


RH: It's really about the medical screening. But I can tell you, I had what I would consider a bad experience with a Harvard-trained psychiatrist. He was 80, or 82, something like that, and he was medically okay, that was all fine. He went to a ceremony, and I told him you have to take some time after the ceremony for the impact to really sink in, so you don't go right back into all your old habits. Well, he left the ceremony when it was over, and he went right back into his office and did ten hours of seeing patients! His age was okay, but he was not very open and that to me was a failure. That was very sad.


JT: He didn't take time for his own personal reflection to –


RH: – Yeah, to take time to let the experience soak in, so that's what's as important as your medical status.


JT: In terms of that comfortable environment where you feel safe, what influence does the creative process play, so that you're not just sitting and waiting for this wave to wash over you? I mean, journal-writing or drawing? Are these things that you recommend or have found useful?


RH: All of the above, it's all helpful and useful. Absolutely.


JT: Music for you to listen to, or whatever –


RH: Well, I do encourage people to listen to the music that you heard during your journey and have input on the music. If you're working one on one with someone you can request this sort of thing.


JT: That reminds me of The Doors of Perception – Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda, they had an early influence on me. Were there books that you encountered early on that had an influence on you?


RH: You know, I was looking for these books when I was still in high school, and I didn't have anyone to talk to who had this similar interest.


JT: I felt alone with it, too. I gradually met my tribe, you know.


RH: This is often the story. It took us a while to find each other, and it was, I think it's Alan Watts’ “Psychotherapy, East and West” that was very meaningful to me.


JT: You mentioned your early experience as a young driver; are there experiences that you've had or heard about that stand out in terms of tapping into the mysterious, or a collective experience, something greater than yourself?


RH: Yeah, yeah, I was having lunch with the shaman I work with – this is outside of ceremony –


JT: – Where were you at the time?


RH: It's always California [both laugh] – you know these things don't happen in Maine, somehow! So we're in Sonoma at a restaurant, and I'm with him and his wife, and it's just really lovely, we all love each other and we're having a good time! And he's talking about how he sang to someone who was dying, and he said he sang them “across the night sky.” It was this kind of poetic image, and he was just talking about someone he sang to as they were dying. And I said, “I've been there, I know that night sky – I know that crossing over!,” because I had experienced that when my father was dying. And, and so I really knew, you know – whether it's called the River Styx or crossing the void – I mean there is this sense of a journey. 


I had a client in my psychotherapy practice who came from this large extended Indigenous family from Guyana, and he said his uncle died, and the family says uncle so-and-so has “gone traveling,” which I thought was just a great description of this crossing this – you know, this night sky – and I felt like, oh this is like recognizing, “Ohh yes, I've been in that, you know, I've seen the Grand Canyon, you're describing the Grand Canyon, I know exactly what that looks like!” – and it was a sense of making that crossing-over into that void, it made it very real. It was very exciting to me, and we laughed, and – and of course I asked him if he'll sing for me when I'm dying, which you know, who doesn't want that? Wouldn't that be wonderful?


JT: For sure!


RH: Yeah! And I have a dear friend who's a hospice doctor, he’s a palliative care doc, working in hospice. This is also in California, but farther north. And he had a Native American who was dying in the Hospice setting and all the family and extended family came in and sang and beat drums around the bed as he was dying, and so the doctor's place was to be there to support them, to make it safe for them to do this in the hospice, in the ward; but he would, he talked about feeling privileged to just be present for this ceremony of helping this person die and cross over.


JT: Yeah. Yes.


RH: So you know, we don't know what this is going to be like. So these are different ways to talk about it. And I think the entheogens help prepare us.


JT: Hmm, well, it can be like a mini-death sometimes.


RH: Sometimes [both laughing]. Hey, I have to get my eggplant.


JT: Okay, Rachel, I'll hold on. 


RH:  Hold on, yeah…


[RH goes to check the oven].


RH: Might have been a nice interview, but I burned the eggplant!


JT: Oh no, that's terrible.


RH: It is terrible.


JT: Is it not salvageable?


RH: I don't think so. I just took it out, I'll see what I can save.


JT: Oh-h, I'm so sorry. Just a couple last questions, these are totally spontaneous! I have an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, so I was wondering whether there’s any kind of crossover between dream material and the journey experience? Are there any particular religions that seem to resonate or totally cross cultural lines?


RH: Well, you know, [Timothy] Leary – Leary, and [Ralph] Metzner, and [Swami] Ram Dass wrote a version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead about psychedelics, so they talked about the bardos. 


But the really interesting book is written by a high-level Tibetan monk who was dying, and he talks in a very understandable way about passing through the various bardos. This has nothing to do with psychedelics, but it's the very reader-friendly version of Tibetan Buddhism and his experience of dying, and the name of the book is In Love with the World. It's an amazing book. [In Love With The World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche]


JT: That sounds lovely, yeah. Can it be a portal? Journeying for, say, tapping into one's ancestors and loved ones who've passed before you? Like, is it some sort of magical kind of doorway that can open? Is that something that you've perhaps heard about?


RH: Yes, NYU has a research study using psilocybin with terminal cancer patients, and it's really to help them die – before they die, to prepare them – and the people report amazing mystical experiences, and it makes them more available to their loved ones during the time they have left. So it's very, very therapeutic. They approach their own death completely differently.

thirteenth moon

In Conversation with Rachel Harris

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