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Wisdom From the Psychedelic Underground

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. 


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The women elders have worked with entheogens for decades, for their own healing and guidance, for spiritual practice, and in service to both the medicines and those who journey. They’ve nurtured their personal relationship to the medicines in general and most often to one or two particular ones that are “their medicine.” This is quite a different model from the medicalization of psychedelics used primarily for symptom reduction and very brief clinical treatment.


If you win the trust of the psychedelic therapists and researchers on the study teams, you’ll likely find that many of them are using the medicines, not as a medical prescription, but in the psychospiritual way of the elders. This is the good news. I know of no one indulging in the ways of Timothy Leary and his crew from the sixties. This time around there is a cultural respect for the power of these medicines and the entheogenic experience.


Entheogenic journeys become a part of life, not unlike the Mystery School at Eleusis where people retreated for ceremony once a year. With periodic ritual use, a relationship develops with an entheogen that calls, speaks, or touches you. Maybe you have visionary dreams of that medicine, the spirit of the medicine, or the plant teacher. An energetic connection is established and you receive teachings, insights, guidance, revelations, or downloads, as we now say. You learn how to dialogue with “your medicine.” The relationship becomes more real and evolves over time. You learn how to enter into a reciprocal relationship with this unseen other, learn what this life- long journey asks of you. Once again, this is quite a different model from the medical use of psychedelics.


Research studies have focused on mystical experience as the central mechanism of psychedelic healing using perhaps two to three journeys. But how does healing happen when the medicines are used periodically over a lifetime?


The elder guides have worked with all the medicines and have concentrated on different ones at different times in their lives.


Perhaps the concept of learning within a relationship is a better fit for long-term, ritual use. Psychologist Benny Shanon referred to a school to describe his extended work with ayahuasca, complete with levels and graduations.


The women guides have a passion, a longing for expanded states of consciousness. A number of them said they were more at home in these unseen worlds. They’re committed to a lifelong process of learning and healing, following their own intuitive path. From a totally different perspective, philosopher Peter Kingsley described this process: “It demands tremendous courage. The journey...changes your body; it alters every cell....The longing is what turns us inside out until we find the sun and the moon and the stars inside.”


drawing of a woman holding mushrooms
Artwork: Monique Munhoz

Love the World


What’s the purpose of all these entheogenic journeys if not to expand the heart and open with love for the world. And yes, with love for all humans and other-than-humans, living and nonliving. For rocks as Teilhard de Chardin saw them. For people we disagree with — the great mystics know “we are because they are” in the great interbeing and dependent co-arising. For transcending our personal histories and transforming our relationship to the life we are given, to the world we live in.


Even as he was dying, or perhaps because he was dying, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche came to the realization that “when you love the world, the world loves you back.” This is the big healing that comes through the heart. Poet Raymond Carver, despite his tumultuous life, came to a similar realization in “Late Fragment” that is etched on his tombstone:


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.


To love and be loved leads to a shift in perspective in relation to the world or worlds. This shift in perspective allows for a deeper connection between the inner and outer worlds, through the heart. In a PBS documentary, Apache Bob Stevens described his relationship to the wild: “Being out here in the wild amongst this landscape. I feel the wind and the wind blows right through me, becomes the rhythm with my heart. Not only do I become the world around me but the world around me becomes me and we become one.”


Aboriginal elder David Mowaljarlai described his experience of being in the world:

"You have a feeling in your heart that you’re going to feed your body this day, get more knowledge. You go out now, see animals moving, see trees, a river. You are looking at nature and giving it your full attention, seeing all its beauty. Your vision has opened and you start learning now. When you touch them, all things talk to you, give you their story. It makes you really surprised. You feel you want to go deeper so you start moving around and stamp your feet — to come closer and to recognize what you are seeing. You understand that your mind has been opened to all those things because you are seeing them, because your presence and their presence meet together and you recognize each other. These things recognize you. They give their wisdom and their understanding to you when you come close to them. In the distance, you feel: ‘Aaahh — I’m going to go there and have a closer look!’ You know it is pulling you. When you recognize it, it gives strength — a new flow. You have life now.”


Trappist monk Thomas Merton intimately knew this connection between the inner and outer landscape. He wrote, “It was a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky.” The individual dissolves into nature and upon return has a larger perspective for life.


As we journey, we become more permeable to the natural world, to the wild. Our energy bodies move through our boundaries into a much larger and more subtle world. We journey and learn other ways of knowing — we perceive the world by becoming one with the world. We develop an intimate relationship with nature, with a reciprocity that allows for balance and gratitude. We realize the transcendent is imminent.


More and more people are having numinous experiences with and without entheogens. How do these experiences change us? What do we do differently? How do we live in an illuminated world?


What do these medicines want to teach us? How do they want to heal us? Why have they emerged once again into our modern world, some traveling out of the jungles, mountains, deserts, and chemistry labs? The women guides of the psychedelic underground have been in relationship with these medicines for decades, providing a sacred container for entheogenic journeys. We need to hear from them now more than ever.



photo of Rachel Harris
Rachel Harris

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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