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Rachel Harris: Exploring the Psychedelic Underground with Women Elders

This interview was edited by Jessika Lagarde.


In the evolving landscape of psychedelic research and therapy, there exists a profound yet often overlooked source of wisdom—the women elders who have quietly guided individuals through transformative journeys for decades. In a world where the conversation around psychedelics is predominantly led by scientific inquiry, these women offer a unique perspective rooted in personal experience and spiritual understanding.


'Swimming in the Sacred' delves deep into the narratives of fifteen such women, shedding light on their extensive journey within the psychedelic underground. Authored by Rachel, this groundbreaking work unveils their stories, revealing not just their methods of healing, but their profound insights into the spiritual dimensions of psychedelic experiences. Through intimate interviews, Rachel explores the role of these women as guardians of ancient wisdom, advocates for holistic healing, and trailblazers in the integration of psychedelics into modern consciousness.


Join us as we embark on a journey to uncover the hidden depths of the psychedelic realm, in this wonderful interview with Rachel Harris.


photo of Rachel

WOOP: Tell us about your book Swimming in the Sared and what inspired you to write it.  


Rachel: Swimming in the Sacred is based on in-depth interviews with fifteen women elders. They’ve been guiding people with entheogens for at least twenty years and many of them for thirty and forty years. These women know more about the use of these medicines than any of the scientists yet they remain silent. 


WOOP: Why do you feel it is so important for these women’s voices to be heard right now? 


Rachel: The research is studying a cost-effective approach to psychedelics. What’s the most effective way to use these medicines to reduce symptoms and alleviate suffering? This is a practical and important approach but it’s not the way the entheogens are used as a part of life – the women elders have used these medicines their whole lives, up into old age. The people they work with journey during the course of their lives, not just for reduced symptoms but for spiritual exploration. It’s important that our culture creates a way for these medicines to be used beyond medical purposes – for spiritual and psychological growth. 


WOOP: How did you decide which women to interview and how did you find them?  


Rachel: I met a few of the women underground elders when my book, Listening to Ayahuasca, came out.  It’s my nature as a therapist and as a researcher to ask questions, to understand how their work with the entheogens led to healing. 


WOOP: Were any of the underground guides hesitant to talk to you? If so, why and how did you put their minds at ease?  


Rachel: The women had a vow of silence for over forty years – they had never talked to an outsider before. And I am an outsider – I’ve never worked underground. In my 35 years in private practice, I’ve worked with people who’ve had mystical experiences – I was known as a safe therapist to talk to about spiritual matters. 


WOOP: What have your own experiences with psychedelics informed this work?  


Rachel: The women elders are spiritual warriors. I’m not. But I have had my own experiences, mostly in  the late sixties when I was living at Esalen

Institute in Big Sur and then more recently with ayahuasca over the last two decades.


WOOP: You say that a huge gap exists between the women elders you interviewed who work in the psychedelic underground and the researchers in university settings. How so?  


Rachel: The women have more experience with the medicines – their own experiences and also working with others in journeys. They also understand how entheogens heal over the span of a lifetime,  not just a few sessions in a few months. Also, the women have personal relationships with the medicines, especially the plant medicines. The researchers don’t go into those subtle realms.  From a shamanic point of view, those relationships are central to the healing process. 


WOOP: How did the women you interviewed become guides for psychedelic journeys?

 

Rachel: This is an important way these women are different from the psychedelic therapists being trained now online with minimal journey experience. The women first used the medicines to heal themselves – over a period of years. Only gradually did they begin to sit for others and then usually as part of an apprenticeship with supervision and consultation. A few studied with indigenous shamans. Generally, this process took about seven years. I understand that we need to train guides faster these days to meet the current mental health needs, but we need to understand that wisdom in these subtle realms takes years to develop. 


WOOP: What did they have to say about the more challenging aspects of being a guide?

 

Rachel: The women emphasized how careful their screening methods were. I tell people not to go to a ceremony if the organizers have not screened them medically in depth. 

Laura Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s wife said the hardest part of guiding is keeping your own ego out of the way. 


WOOP: Were you surprised that all of the underground guides you interviewed reported receiving guidance from unseen sources — plant teachers, ancestors, angels, etc. Why or why not?  


Rachel: No, I wasn’t surprised. I know that the healing isn’t just about the drug, that far more mysterious and subtle energies are essential to the healing process. These sources are beyond the Western worldview. Some brave anthropologists have talked about their experiences with spirits in indigenous cultures. But the research scientists, working within academic settings, can’t go there.  


WOOP: Did anything else surprise you about your conversations with the guides? 


Rachel: I was most overwhelmed by their personal courage and inner strength. They have faith in the medicines, in their own process, and they are not afraid or their fear doesn’t stop them or even slow them down. This is not an easy path to follow and the risks are great. These women are spiritual warriors. 


WOOP: Tell us about the quote you share at the end of each of your talks that offers advice regarding discernment.  


Rachel: Most of the book is based on interviews but some parts are based on my own personal experiences.  The quote you’re referring to is my best advice: Listen to the message that leads to the love that permeates the universe. I think the issue of discernment is central as we enter into unseen realms where healing and sorcery are both possible and inflation is often present. At the most elemental level, people should use great discernment when deciding what ceremony to attend.


WOOP: Tell us about the section of the book called “Practice for Death and Dying,” and what it has to do with psychedelics.  


Rachel: The NYU research team gave psilocybin to people with terminal cancer. There was a significant reduction in anxiety and fear of dying. People were able to use their time to deepen their important relationships and make peace with their mortality. You can find Anthony Bossis, a psychologist from the team on Youtube. In psychedelic journeys, you learn to trust the process meaning go with the flow and don’t resist. Often people report journeying into the afterlife or meeting people who have crossed over. People report many of the same benefits that others report from NDE without psychedelics. 


WOOP: What is somatic sensing and how do the guides you interviewed use it in their work? 


Rachel: The guides are sitting there with the client under a blanket, with earphones and eye shades. It’s  hard to see any facial expression – the guides have few visual clues and can’t keep interrupting  to ask, ‘What’s happening now?’ So they have to use their intuition, sensing through their own bodies, picking up energy based on their own vast experiences. Their body is their instrument.  One guide said, she takes a deep breathe when she wants her client to take a deep breathe. 


WOOP: Tell us about the chapter called “What the Hell is Integration, Anyway!?”  


Rachel: I wasn’t sure that title was going to get through the editors but they allowed it. I think we have to admit that integration is not a simple process of a few therapy sessions to debrief a psychedelic journey. Many of the maps subjects have requested more integration sessions than were scheduled in the protocol. Integration is always an ongoing process. With or without psychedelics, it continues throughout a lifetime. But following these intense journeys, the question always is how am I different/ how have my values and priorities changed?  


The women elders are not therapists. If a client asks for more follow-up integration sessions,  often they are referred to an experienced therapist or another journey is suggested. The research studies and training programs blend the two roles of sitter and therapist. They do not necessarily involve the same skill set. This should be clarified as people are trained to practice. 


WOOP: What are some of the key learnings you received from your time with women elders?  


Rachel: The two most important things I learned from spending years talking with these women did not necessarily involve psychedelics. I can’t say I can live up to these ideas but I quote them: 

“We are responsible for our intentions and our choices. Responsible to ourselves and to  humanity.”  

“We need to learn how to live on this earth and be joyful.”  


WOOP: What do you most hope that readers will take away from your book?  


Rachel: I hope readers will have a greater appreciation of the subtle nature of working with these sacred medicines - humility.



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 http://www.swimminginthesacred.com


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 — www.newworldlibrary.com.



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