Last month I attended two gatherings on two consecutive weekends that both served to activate soul passions that had been resting dormant inside me for the last few years, and that catalyzed one another in their transformative effect on my life. The first was the Spirit Weavers Gathering in Joshua Tree, which I write about here, and the second was the Women’s Visionary Congress at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, which I write about below. The Institute of Noetic Sciences, or IONS, was founded by NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell after his now-famous epiphany of looking at the earth from space and realizing that the universe is an interconnected living being. IONS is dedicated to the expansion of consciousness and holds many workshops over the course of a year exploring this theme.
I first heard of the Women’s Visionary Congress last year as I prepared to attend the Psychedelic Science Conference in Oakland, CA. I was immediately intrigued by the name, and was further drawn in when I read that one of the three organizers was a “death midwife”, as I had just signed on as a Hospice volunteer and was learning about home funerals as well. I signed up for their full day, post-conference workshop at the last minute, and I’m so glad I did. After four days of scientific presentations from researchers at medical centers and universities, complete with graphs and data and verified results, the Women’s Visionary Congress workshop was a sacred, safe circle of people sitting around and telling our stories. It made personal all of the research we’d been learning about during the previous days. It reminded us, beyond the facts and figures that so many in the psychedelic movement are blessedly bringing forth in order to re-legitimize these medicines in the public eye, why we all care so much that as many people as possible have the experiences we have all had.
I learned that day that the Women’s Visionary Congress holds an annual gathering in the spring, and decided that I would make it in 2014. I really had no idea what to expect and, honestly, after experiencing the Spirit Weavers Gathering the weekend before was a little concerned that this would possibly be a letdown after such a fantastic experience. But that was not the case at all and, as stated in the opening paragraph, each experience was potentiated by the other and having them back to back catalyzed a lot of expansive movement within me.
Mostly, I was reminded that my deepest heart’s calling has always (well, since age 16) been to write about psychedelic healing and consciousness expansion with the intention of encouraging people to undertake their own safe, sacred, and intentional journeys in order to bring about healing, growth, and remembrance. For over half my life now that has been the one driving force, its pull on me waxing and waning throughout the years.
After my first, unexpectedly mind-blowing mushroom experience at age 16 my exploration and my curiosity died down for a bit. I didn’t know how to integrate what had happened to me, I didn’t have any of the post-trip support that today’s psychedelic enthusiasts (myself included) so heartily advocate for. All I had was Erowid, which I found immediately after my family got our first computer when I was 17. And it was helpful, but I still felt completely alone in my quest to understand what I had experienced on that journey inward, and I stuffed it all inside and went on with life.
The lack of support for the integration of what I had experienced had some heavy consequences over the years. From my senior year through the end of my college days I struggled with depression, anxiety attacks, constant back pain, and cutting myself whenever things got too overwhelming. The beauty and awe-inspiring truths of the universe that I had known in the psilocybin experience weren't reflected anywhere in the mainstream culture in which I was immersed, and there was a split in my psyche that was crazy-making.
When I was 20 I stumbled across the book Cleansing the Doors of Perception by Huston Smith at a bookstore in San Diego. I was a Religious Studies major by then (seeking the source of what I had experienced during that first entheogenic journey, I now realize) and Hustom Smith wrote the book upon which my entire education was based, The World’s Religions. And I already knew that “the doors of perception” was taken from the William Blake phrase from which the band The Doors had gotten their name
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it really is- infinite
so I had an inkling that the book might be about different states of consciousness. But I had no idea that such an esteemed scholar would write an entire book about psychedelics (or, as he prefers to call them, entheogens, which means “god within”- theo genesis) until I plucked the book off the shelf and read the inside cover.
I am sure that my jaw dropped open, though I don’t remember anything else about that day except for the fact that I read the entire book in one sitting in my little college apartment that night, which was a singular event in my book-filled life. Reading that book led me to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (Blake to Huxley to Morrison to Smith and now to Stephen Harrod Buhner, whose AMAZING new book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm carries the subtitle Beyond the Doors of Perception Into the Dreaming of Earth, and I’m sure there are many more titles and names and subtitles that have riffed on this theme). I had, of course, read Huxley’s Brave New World in high school and knew only that he was also an eminent and respected scholar.
So here are these two dudes, one elderly and one already passed on (oh um, by the way, Huxley had his wife Laura inject LSD into this body as he was dying), who had previously been presented to me in school as wise men worthy of learning from, and they are both such great advocates of the psychedelic experience that they have staked their reputations to write books about it. This was when I first realized that psychedelics are not “drugs” like other drugs are drugs, and that the experience that I had when I was a teenager and had perceived as being so valuable and meaningful and positively life-changing really was as big of a deal as I had thought it was.
When I moved on to reading the writings of Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Ralph Metzner, and more I learned that most people have the kind of deeply opening and healing experience that I had when they use psychedelics intentionally and in a safe setting with a healthy mindset. I learned that psychedelics are NOT party drugs and that bad trips can, mostly, be avoided with proper preparation and intention.
But through all of this mind-opening and passion-inducing reading I knew that these substances were very much illicit (as they still are today), and had no idea how I could ever hope to openly advocate for their use some day. Instead I continued to read books and articles online. As for so many others, finding Terence McKenna was totally life changing. Back in the early 2000s, shortly after his death, I had to do some digging to find his talks online. Today they are abundant and well organized (I recommend just searching on YouTube or checking out the Psychedelic Salon podcast), and lord knows how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent with his hypnotic voice weaving mycelial threads of radical and visionary ideas into my deep consciousness, hoping that someday they would mushroom up into fruiting bodies of substantial ideas that I could put out into the world and discuss with others. It heartens me to know that so many others have been holing up in their rooms doing this same thing for many years, and that now that the tide is turning in American culture we’re all coming out of hiding and finding one another.
"Find the others, and return to first principles" -Terence McKenna
Fast forward to 2012, when I was scrolling through episodes of the podcast Stuff You Should Know and came across one entitled “How Magic Mushrooms Work.” I turned it on and proceeded to begin cleaning my house, but stopped cold when they mentioned the recent government funded study at a top university where carefully screened terminal cancer patients who were suffering from anxiety related to their imminent deaths were given psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) in a safe and supportive setting.
An interview with a terminal cancer patient who had never used psychedelics before and whose life was profoundly changed by his psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins University. Tears.
Another jaw dropping moment. Two of my oldest and deepest interests- psychedelics and death- two subjects considered taboo in our culture, were converging in a government funded study at a respected university!?! And getting serious press coverage? I knew at that moment that I would dedicate the rest of my life toward learning everything I could about the death threshold and conscious dying and everything I could about safe and sacred psychedelic journeys so that I could someday be at that intersection. You can read more in the New York Times article How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death, from which the first image in this post was taken.
Learning that serious psychedelic studies were being conducted again for the first time in decades, I harkened back to my 17-year-old endeavor of turning to the internet to try and find my community. Where I had found Erowid back in high school, this time I found MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Even though they’d been around since 1986, I’d been so in the dark about the fact that other people who shared my interest were actually doing this work in the world that I had never heard of them. But my timing couldn’t have been better, because the Psychedelic Science Conference was just a few short months away.
A short film about the Psychedelic Science Conference. If you pause at 2:32 you can see me, sitting behind the projector in a pink top, raising my hand :-)
I’ve shared my story here to demonstrate how I came to find myself on a golden hillside in Petaluma this past May surrounded by 100 psychedelic researchers, advocates, and general explorers at the Women's Visionary Congress.
Many of the people there belonged to the original psychonaut generation and witnessed firsthand the events of the late 60s that have become legendary in the minds of amateur counterculture historians like myself. My interest in the music and happenings of that era grew not out of my interest in psychedelics, but out of the fact that my mom was in her late teens in the late 60s and lived in the Bay Area and raised me up on stories of watching Jefferson Airplane perform at The Fillmore, how her then-boyfriend and now-husband stormed the field during The Beatles last concert at Candlestick Park in order to impress her, and the laughing fit she and a friend couldn’t seem to stop at the Jimi Hendrix show. I had also developed a passion for bohemian vintage clothing in my 20s, and in fact this blog was first begun as a way to write and share about 60s/70s vintage. However they came to be, my interest in both aspects of the late 60s counterculture- the music/clothing/scene and the psychedelic movement- obviously overlap and I love living in a time when so many new books are being written about all of it!
A little slice of my bookshelf.
Such as Rhoney Stanley’s new book Owsley and Me: My LSD Family. I had first glimpsed it on a table at the back of the main room the first night of the conference, and so I immediately recognized the cover art on the side of the canvas bag being carried by the woman I found myself walking side by side with after breakfast the next morning. (The food at the Earthrise Retreat Center at IONS was, by the way, incredible. Seriously go just for that). I had long known that Owsley was the man who produced most of the LSD that the Bay Area consumed in the 60s but knew nothing else about this influential man (except that I’d sometimes thought that Owsley would be a cool name for a possible future son). So I was stoked to see the book and to know that I’d have a lot of gaps in my knowledge filled in and that I’d have another worthy addition to my bookshelf.
So I commented on her bag as we left the dining hall and she said, “Thanks, I wrote the book!” We immediately fell into a conversation about her life in the late 60s and she told me (as discussed in the book) that aside from helping Owsley in his underground operation to help expand the consciousness of as many people as possible, the two of them had also been involved in a non-traditional relationship in which he retained the girlfriend he’d been with before meeting Rhoney and both women accepted this and they even had his babies a few weeks apart and raised them like siblings! As someone who is interested in the normalization of non-traditional relationship structures- as I've briefly touched upon here and here-, especially in ones where women aren’t (however subconsciously) viewed as property and where raging jealousy isn’t accepted as normal, natural behavior, I was thrilled to meet a pioneer in this lifestyle who had truly made it work! And long before it was a part of a larger cultural conversation, as it is today.
Before the weekend was over Rhoney signed my book and gave me her email address, excited to correspond with me about the differences in our respective generations’ approach to non-monogamy and forging relationships outside of what the standard cultural narrative tells us is right and natural.
My and Rhoney’s goodbye, just as I was getting into my car to drive away at the end of the weekend, perfectly illustrates what for me was the main takeaway of the weekend- the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Rhoney and I embraced and I promised to email soon, and she said that she is thrilled that my generation is carrying this work forward and that she is excited by what we’re doing. I responded that we, in turn, are honored to learn from her generation and to have the chance to get to know the elders who are still with us. She was visibly touched by this and put her hands over her heart and thanked me, and we both walked away feeling happy and inspired by the learning that is possible now that psychedelic healing is an almost-mainstream concept again.
This generational wisdom sharing was emphasized for me at least two other times during the weekend. The first was when a group of about 10 students from Evergreen College in Washington told all of us about their psychedelic support group (called GAPS, or Greener’s Association for Psychedelic Studies, a play on the MAPS name) and about their individual journeys with this work and their future aspirations. Their college had paid for them to come! Round trip airfare for 10! Everegreen is obviously a very progressive school; bless them for realizing that their students (like students at every college) are going to experiment with psychedelics and that it’s best if they have a safe and supportive community within which to do that.
Everyone who attended their talk was very moved to see such young people talking so openly about how psychedelics had positively effected their lives, and I think it gave many of the elders there hope that their life’s work had influenced many people and would be carried forward after they are gone. Which brings me to the second moment of the gathering when I could palpably feel this generational passing of the torch. At the closing circle we were informed that Sasha Shulgin, the 88 year old pioneer of psychedelic substances and beloved elder in the community, was very near to the death threshold. We joined together to send him our love and blessings as he neared the ultimate trip, and it felt significant and even sacred that we were all gathered in the name of carrying on work such as his as he was in that liminal space at the end of his life’s work.
Sasha passed two days later, the same day I opened up the latest MAPS brochure (which I had picked up at the congress) to find this picture of myself at the Psychedelic Science Conference last year placed next to this photo of Sasha (in the circle near me). What an honor to have my visage alongside such world-changing information about all of the work that MAPS is doing, and to have my entranced face so near to Sasha’s!
I didn’t take any photos at the conference last year, and this moment was perhaps the most special to me during that whole five days experience, so I was totally floored to open up the brochure and see that it had been captured. I was sitting next to my new friends Colin and Michael (the handsome dudes there in the front row with me) and we were watching Ralph Metzner speak. I have read many of Metzner’s books over the years and if anyone is my “hero”, it’s him. I was in a state of total reverence being so close to this wise elder and getting to glean bits of his knowledge, gathered over a lifetime of exploring consciousness and writing books on his findings. I had just been through my Hospice volunteer training and was feeling called to work at the death threshold, and I’’ll never forget him saying that “Our culture’s conception of death is infantile.” I ordered his book The Life Cycle of the Human Soul when I got back home, and that book along with Stan Grof’s The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death have helped to inform my death work and I am so glad I got to hear both of these elders speak while they are still around. Seeing Stan speak was another profound moment where a new generation of explorers and advocates were sitting at the feet of a beloved pioneer and learning by direct transmission.
Another theme of the weekend for me was women’s place within this movement. Despite its name, the Women’s Visionary Congress is not at all exclusive and there were many male attendees and a few male presenters at the gathering. But obviously the organization is interested in promoting women’s research, art, and other contributions within the framework of consciousness expansion and exploring visionary states.
During the weekend I found myself getting excited that certain people were there. One of them was Rhoney Stanley. Another was Kat Harrison, former wife of Terence McKenna. And another was Carolyn Garcia, AKA Mountain Girl, a legend of the scene who I was first introduced to when I read Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in high school, and who was married to Jerry Garcia. Although all of these women have made their own significant contributions to the world, notice that I have to define them by the men in their lives in order to give a greater context that more people will be able to immediately categorize. Women in the psychedelic movement still, as in every other arena of life outside the domestic sphere, take a back seat to men.
Mountain Girl with Ken Kesey.
I had this conversation a few times at the Spirit Weavers Gathering- how we as women question ourselves constantly while men just plow ahead with total confidence. How we have all this knowledge and wisdom gained over the years and yet fear that we aren't "enough" yet to start putting it out into the world, whereas men never doubt that they have worthy contributions to make and that the world wants nothing more than to watch them in action! A bit oversimplified perhaps, but every woman I've talked to has noticed this disparity and is aware of her own fear of failure and lack of self confidence. It's been ingrained in us by society since we were small girls that we are never *quite* good enough.
The fact that women in traditional and indigenous societies often assume leadership positions shows that this isn't the natural order of things, but is a deep and oftentimes unconsciously held cultural belief. And it is one that many men and women are working to change. It seems that the psychedelic mindset lends itself beautifully to this endeavor, as shedding old fears and getting in touch with one's true power is a very common outcome of an intentional journey. I love it that the WVC is dedicated to bringing forth the voice of the feminine as it relates to consciousness exploration.
As I've written about before in my deep ancestry post and in my daughter Mycelia's unassisted birth story, it is the unbroken line of women stretching both backward and forward through time that sustains the human family and that those of us poor, blessed souls who are currently incarnated can draw on to find the strength and wisdom of our ancestors- human, animal, plant, and fungi forbears whose cellular memory remains imbedded in us and whose knowledge is still accessible to us, especially when we consciously enter into visionary states. All hail Mitochondrial Eve and the ancient mycelial threads that weave us all together back to our primordial mother as we carry forward the work of creating the world tomorrow's children will live in.
By Nikki McClure.