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Becoming a Psychedelic Guide

An Excerpt from Swimming in the Sacred by Rachel Harris, PhD

As our legal and medical institutions embrace the extraordinary healing benefits of entheogens extraordinary medicines, there is important wisdom in danger of being lost, according to author and researcher Rachel Harris, PhD.  

Her new book Swimming in the Sacred offers a revelatory look into the past half century of psychedelics use via in-depth interviews she conducted with women elders who have worked underground guiding sacred entheogenic journeys to cultivate insight, healing, and spiritual development.   

We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.

drawing of a woman pilling up stones
Artist: Mia Oahki

As the psychedelic renaissance explodes, the need for guides and therapists is rising exponentially. Training programs are proliferating that are sponsored by academic institutions, nonprofits, and profit-making businesses. This chapter turns to the histories of the underground elders — exploring the personal qualities and experiences that enabled them to learn how to accompany people through psychedelic realms. 

Virtually all of the underground women guides I interviewed went through an apprenticeship with luminaries in the psychedelic world, such as Stan Grof, Ralph Metzner, or Leo Zeff, better known as the Secret Chief. Almost half of the women apprenticed with indigenous healers from Native American tribes or the Amazon basin. Of the three who had been working for only ten years, two are still studying with a Peruvian shaman and the third claims that “the mushrooms are teaching” her. The latter woman also studied with an array of subtle energy teachers but not in an apprenticeship, putting her in a totally different category — experienced but not apprenticed.

An apprenticeship is not a training, no matter how long the training might be. An apprenticeship is of a whole different order. It’s literally sitting at the elbow of an acknowledged elder, learning the craft or art by being present, osmosing the subtle skills to work with energy in the moment. Anthropologist Francis Huxley apprenticed with a Brazilian healer and described the intimacy necessary for the process of transmission: “You have to get their way of seeing into your own system.” This characterizes the implicit learning that takes place when the student is in the teacher’s energy field as the teacher works.

Radha, a woman guide who trained for many years in the jungle with a Peruvian shaman, described how she learned to sing the icaros (healing songs). Her teacher, a powerful shaman, would sing, and “I would sing a nanosecond behind him,” she said. She reflected on the kind of synchronicity that arises during this kind of energetic learning process: “The relationship between student and teacher happens on multiple dimensions.” She described how she dreamed of the tree one of her apprentices was dieting on, while at the same time her student did a painting of it. There’s a subtle merging of images as guides accompany their students through entheogenic realms and track their progress. The teacher tunes in to the student, and the student learns to resonate with the teacher, and information is transmitted nonverbally through this attunement. 

Our culture lacks the deep understanding of this embedded approach to learning. Our current use of the term mentor in the business world has been reduced to meeting once a week with a boss. Even the leading Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies and Research certificate program at the California Institute of Integral Studies describes the mentorship aspect of their training this way: “The mentors meet with a small group of mentees regularly and once individually during the program.”

The program’s use of the term mentor is more closely related to networking than to an apprenticeship model: “Our trainees have access to experts in the psychedelic field and in-depth mentoring that enables them to create professional connections not otherwise available among the influencers in this arena.” Admittedly, this is a training program and not an apprenticeship, and they are ramping up to meet the field’s “rapidly growing demand for psychedelic therapists by training 1,125 graduates over the next three years.” My point is that the psychedelic field needs to make the distinction between how the newly hatched psychedelic therapists are being trained and how the elder guides learned in apprenticeships.

Other cultures, at other times, possessed a traditional concept of apprenticeship. For example, consider the rug dyers in twelfth-century Turkey. Their apprenticeship went on for fifteen years, and based on their life expectancy, this was at least half their time on earth. In addition, in order to become a master dyer, the student had to create a color that no one had ever seen before.  This seems like a magical request from a fairy tale, yet it illustrates the high standards expected from an apprenticeship. 

I recently asked an Academy Award–winning documentary director whether she had a mentor or apprenticeship experience. “No,” she reflected, “but I mentored other people.” She then described h ow she worked with a twenty-five-year-old woman for over fifteen years, helped her become a producer in her own right, and then supported her decision to have a child in her early forties. She emphasized that the relationship was about more than the young woman’s career: “I considered her a friend of the family — she did my daughters’ makeup when they went to proms. And I understood how important it was for her to have a baby.” The apprenticeship relationship goes way beyond work or career.

An apprenticeship is more like an adoption, a familial relationship. For the elder, it’s an opportunity to pass on their teachings and practical skills to the next generation. Too often the elder’s biological family members are not interested in the old ways, so the elder adopts someone from outside the family. In two instances I know, indigenous elders asked their adopted students to promise to teach any of their family members who might show an interest after the elder passed on. In another case, a dying shaman gave his shamanic power objects to his godson who, in turn, promised to pass them on to any of the old shaman’s biological offspring should they decide to enter into training.

Both teacher and student invest enormous amounts of time and energy into the relationship — years and years. The underground guides reported apprenticeships lasting from seven to fifteen to twenty-five years. This doesn’t mean that the apprentice didn’t begin to work on her own at some point, but this was always, at the beginning, under the eye of the teacher. One woman reported being reprimanded early on by her teacher for offering a combination of medicines she hadn’t yet experienced herself. This was evidently a serious misstep. She was told she couldn’t guide anyone for twelve months, and she accepted this consequence.

Often the initial meeting of elder and student is a synchronous event, meaning there’s a match between outer-world circumstances and the inner-world readiness of the student. Audrey showed up for a lecture and found herself at the first announcement of Stan Grof’s initial training in Holotropic Breathwork. He said, “I’m looking for thirty students who want to study with me for the next three years.” Audrey raised her hand high and has since been involved in that work for over forty years. She knew immediately.

Medridth was in search of an office to rent, and an Esalen connection referred her to Leo Zeff. I can imagine Zeff immediately recognizing her easy, elegant grace. He invited her to assist him at an underground weekend he was doing in Bolinas, California. This was back in the sixties, and it was Medridth’s first introduction to acid, and then hours later to ibogaine and ayahuasca in powder form, all in the same night — remember, this was the sixties. I don’t know anyone doing this kind of mix now. But Medridth said, “I had a strong intuition to go, not knowing what it was.”

Arielle said she went to every lecture, workshop, and training that Stan Grof conducted for years and years. “Stan’s descriptions of the varieties of expanded states of consciousness matched my inner experiences, affirming my inner knowing. His work is seminal…foundational to my work and worldview.” She also traveled with Stan and a small entourage to various sacred sites in Southeast Asia. Much learning takes place in personal relationships, just seemingly hanging out. For instance, Arielle asked Stan, “Why do this work?” His reply: “It’s practice for death, learning how to surrender to the unknown prepares us for our own experience of dying without fear.”

When Radha discovered that the shaman she was studying with was abusing Western and indigenous women and girls, she left him. But in this case, the energetic link with this shaman was difficult to break, and Radha feels that he still appears in ceremonies in energetic form, although he’s unwelcome. She told me, “When he does show up, I take the opportunity to hone my skills, learn, and be ever more in the light. So he is not welcome and I thank him as his appearances teach me.” These are powerful relationships on many levels. 

Connie Grauds, a dear friend and not one of the underground guides, described her experience of an apprenticeship to don Antonio, a Peruvian shaman who didn’t read or write. They didn’t speak the same language. The apprenticeship consisted, she said, of her “following, living, resting in hammocks, sharing meals. The process was osmosis, knowledge washed through me to deliver to the modern world.” This she has done in a myriad of books and presentations. 

Don Antonio asked Connie whether she really wanted to apprentice. “It will kill you,” he said. “Make you crazy or heal you.” She understood the risks from the very beginning. He told her, “My job is to take you to the spirit doctors and bring you back safely.” Don Antonio saw his role as a gatekeeper, and ayahuasca was the gate. He said only to do it if she followed dietas with discipline: no sex, no salt, no sugar, no meat or spices. You have to be quiet and calm in body, mind, and spirit. You have to maintain these practices to be pure and fine-tuned in order to communicate with the spirit doctors. After Connie had lived like a monk in the jungle for five years, the spirit doctors finally began to talk to her.

A number of the women elders worked with both Stan Grof and Ralph Metzner. Angeles Arrien, coming from a Basque tradition, was a teacher for a few of the underground guides. The eldest of the elders, Medridth, is still seen as a teacher for some of the guides, although she prefers to think of these relationships as part of a sacred sisterhood. 

Mary trained with Ralph Metzner after almost twenty years of extensive study in energy healing work. When she first attended a training with Metzner, he greeted her by saying, “Nice to see you again.” They had never met before but they recognized each other from a past life. This kind of past-life connection is more common in non-Western cultures, including the Tibetan tradition of a student’s search for the two-year-old child reincarnation of his beloved rinpoche.

Although there were thirty people in that initial training, Mary was the only one who apprenticed with Ralph in an ongoing relationship. They were in regular, close contact for the last thirteen years of his life. She assisted him in ceremonies, consulted with him about her work with groups, and talked with him at least once a month. Mary knew Ralph was dying and dreamed of him four days before his death. In her dream, she saw him going up in an elevator in a parking garage, dressed in royal colors and fabrics. She walked with him across a bridge.

cover of the book Swimming in the Sacred

About the Author: Rachel Harris, PhD, is the author of Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground and Listening to Ayahuasca. A psychologist who has been in private practice for 40 years, she spent 10 years in an academic research department where she published more than 40 scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals and received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award.  Rachel splits her time between an island in Maine and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her online at 

Excerpted from the book Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground  ©2023 by Rachel Harris, PhD.  Printed with permission from New World Library —

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