Updated: Jul 4
I just spent a week in Denver with one of my closest friends from medical school attending the MAPS Psychedelic Science 2023 conference. It was equally overwhelming and heart-opening. I feel like I came in fully unprepared for this experience and was hit directly in the face as if I had been an unsuspecting participant in a pillow fight. I’m glad I was able to attend the pre-conference workshops when the majority of attendees had yet to arrive. There was a slightly calmer and more intimate feel to those two days that helped my nervous system regulate and prepare for the tsunami of activity to come.
Day 1: Stood in a line of about 1000 people to register and pick up my name tag, only to get rerouted to my workshop due to time constraints. They say grief comes in waves and my grief over the loss of my friend Rob last year washed over me as I waited in line. I could imagine him being there with me, giddy with anticipation, wearing all of his MAPS attire, star-struck and shamelessly running up to the leaders in this field to capture a photograph or an autograph with them. I was drawn to his abundant enthusiasm and joyful presence when we met 10 years ago, and I was much in need of it in the enormous concaves of the Denver Convention Center as I was already feeling overwhelmed by the energy of the event.
I made it to my "Ecopsychedelics" workshop to hear how our current academic minds (this team was primarily from Naropa University) navigate and promote the rich territory between ecopsychology and psychedelic medicines. First and foremost, they started with a land acknowledgment and offered appreciation for the indigenous knowledge that has supported our western understanding of plant medicines and ecology. I learned how psychedelics not only provide access to the collective unconscious but also to the ecological unconscious that provides us with a deep knowing that the Earth is home to our souls. I heard about the reductionist approach used in evidence-based medicine and how we cannot fully assume this view with psychedelic medicines because it is such a system-wide healing modality requiring set, setting, relationships, trust and connection (to other living humans, to self, to nature). My other take-home was not as profound but I’ve decided to revisit my initial plan of inviting AIP clients to leave their cell phones at the front desk when they arrive in order to open up space to connect with themselves, with the land, and with the beautiful living beings that share it with us. This is an important first step in the healing journey I want to offer our clients. Important leaders in this movement are Sam Gandy, Rosalind Watts, Joanna Macy, and Bill Plotkin.
Day 2: Attended a workshop on Meditation and Contemplative Science provided by faculty from Naropa University (an educational environment that is Buddhist inspired). We went deep into the neuroscience of contemplative practices (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, breathwork) and how they affect different neuronal networks similarly to psychedelic medicines. By consciously engaging in compassion practices (including self-compassion!) we can promote our own health, well-being, positive emotions (love), prosocial behaviors and become more resourced to support the healing of others. I learned a good mantra to support this practice: "I wish that all will be free from suffering." I also found my compassion "spark" which for some might be babies or young children, puppies or kittens. Mine was the unconditional love and support I received from my grandmother and my memories of sitting at all of our large family gatherings holding hands and feeling connected and comforted by another loving presence.
Day 3-5: This is where the main conference began and I felt swept into a rushing stream of science, energy, ancient and emerging knowledge, conflicts and connections. I attended many different talks ranging from a broad-based understanding of "How Psychedelics Work" to "Creating Standards of Care, Accreditation, Professional Guidelines and Certification for Psychedelic Practitioners" to "Psychedelics and Spirituality." I learned about and contemplated the REBUS (relaxed beliefs under psychedelics) model of understanding how psychedelics can have an impact on such a wide-ranging set of mental health issues (from depression to OCD to addiction to PTSD). I had the privilege of learning directly from leaders in the field such as Robin Carhartt-Harris, Roland Griffiths, Scott Shannon, Ben Sessa, Racquel Bennett, Charles Grob, Michael Mithoefer, Marcela Ot’alora, Bob Jesse, Joe Tafur, Michael Pollan, Richard Schwartz and Bessel van der Kolk. I was star-struck and soaking it all in.
There were a few recurring themes in every presentation: We must acknowledge, appreciate and engage indigenous wisdom in our approach to working with plant medicines. Though evidence-based medicine and randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trials are one way of "knowing," they are not the only game in town and we need to acknowledge their limitations as well. We need to make these treatments accessible to the broader community. We are not actually autonomous individuals as we would like to believe, but part of a greater network of humanity, environment and unconscious and invisible energies that can be tapped into for healing and connection. No matter the question, love is the answer. Be Kind.
Roland Griffiths, PhD is a beautiful soul and his talk on Spirituality, Mindfulness and Mortality was one of the most moving presentations I’ve ever witnessed. He has devoted the greater part of his life to researching psilocybin’s effects on spirituality, mystical experiences and well-being (with a focus on end of life anxiety secondary to diagnosis of terminal illness) only to discover last year that he is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis as well. His reaction to this finding was inspiring and humbling. After moving through the stages of grief he stepped out on the other side with a renewed gratitude for the "preciousness of life" and a curiosity for all of the wonders life holds. He remarked on benevolence, meaning and purpose as guidelines for moving through the psychedelic space. Ultimately he would have us all "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" in terms of providing access to all of those who may benefit from the healing potential in this emerging field.
My heart is full, my body tired. I miss my friend but I know he was there with me. My sign for Rob is a UFO and when I see a UFO symbol, I know he is near. Day 3 of the conference, I ran into one of our MAPS trainers from when Rob and I trained in MDMA assisted therapy in 2019. She immediately broke into tears and offered her condolences and memories of Rob. I told her I knew he was here because I had been spotting UFO symbols in the most unusual places. At that point, she pulled back her hair and revealed her UFO earrings. I miss you Rob. Thanks for being with me last week. I’ll keep up the good work in your honor.