Bob Otis is a member of Chacruna’s Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants and will be a breakout panel session moderator at the upcoming Psychedelic Liberty Summit [PLS], planned to take place April 25th and 26th in the Bay Area. Among other roles in the psychedelic movement, he was a co-founder and served as Chairperson for Decriminalize Nature Oakland, which drafted the resolution that passed in Oakland last June. We spoke with Bob recently about why he is excited about the upcoming PLS and the important questions it will tackle surrounding liberty and diversity. As we shared our biographies, Bob’s wide-ranging experience within the psychedelic world, his synthesis-oriented views and his encouragement towards a “quiet, respectful and careful” approach–offered up its own story.
[Note: This event will be held virtually in light of recent health concerns. Check Chacruna.net for updates.]
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Bob. You’ve had a fascinating journey and have rubbed shoulders with many of the psychedelic greats. Can you share a little bit about your background?
Times are changing! It’s an interesting time. So much to unpack when looking at “psychedelic greats,” history and society in terms of lineages, generations, transformation. These are opportunities to listen and engage those who have journeyed before us – and who will journey after us – with care and respect.
As Western societies transition into positive post-modernity, we’ve experienced the rediscovery of sacred plants and practices by the likes of Huxley, Wasson, Schultes, Marlene Dobkin De Rios, Sasha and Anne Shulgin, Wendy Doniger, many others. It’s lucky for us. These amazing folks became the first re-awakened elders within emerging sacred plant lineages. They opened up opportunities for disconnected communities to grow sacred plant knowledge, globally, for all who have been separated from the natural plant sacraments. I want to express gratitude for those elders, and particularly for the indigenous traditions that have carried sacred plant wisdom and resources forward to them and to us. Thanks to the wisdom and resources they’ve offered, I haven’t had to go through life wondering, “There must be something more… will I understand after I die?” Intentional engagement with natural sacraments can teach that there is something more. Healing, natural connection and numinous, existential insight is available within this lifetime.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that openly seeks healing and truth. My mom’s family connected my brothers and me to gardening and wildcrafting in Tennessee where I grew up, and dad’s medical, pastoral and Quaker lineage focused us towards healing and insight. Dad was both a surgeon and an explorer of consciousness. At a young age I came across books by Charles Tart, John Lilly and R. E. Schultes in our library at home. As a young man, I had a powerful +4 experience high up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, sitting with good and trusted friends. I felt an opening to what seemed like the ground of being, existential Truth, or God. This helped change my whole sense about my place in the universe, I felt, for the better. I was able to go to my dad and say, “Hey this is real, this can be liberating.” All of this led me to engage a lifetime of research into consciousness, with support from elders of my family, which means a lot to me. I deeply appreciate that this was possible and I wish this warm ancestral connection for others.
It was a privilege to be able to travel with my family and later with my father to observe and engage diverse traditional healing and sacred plant practices. It was deeply informative to explore diverse indigenous healing and religious traditions in Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, India, to participate in indigenous Bruha practices in the Phillipines. I enjoyed journeys to Esalen and to places in Northern California like Harbin Hot Springs with dad, and worked quietly with small groups over these decades, seeking healing and insight. During this time I was able to connect, learn from and explore consciousness with different teachers, explorers and luminaries. Exposure to diversity is a great teacher. Rare and precious time was experienced in remote areas, learning from traditional healers, receiving instructions, learning about plants and practices. It has been a privilege to grow care, respect and trust with traditional curanderos and curanderas from different traditions, and to ask and receive permissions to return plants and practices home to my community. My intentions are to return these privileges through service, to support careful, respectful and effective practice, healing and deepest insight with plant sacraments.
Formative memories include sitting with my dad, Terence McKenna and Jonathon Ott in a little cabana in Mexico, exploring mushrooms that we’d found growing wild. At the pyramids in Palenque we enjoyed a journey with Sasha and Anne Shulgin. I was able to strike up plant-focused relationships with amazing people like Rob Montgomery [Of the Jungle Entheobotanicals]. Rob was a great soul and a pioneering entheobotanist, as is his then-partner Jane Straight. Jane is so generous and loving with plants. You might see her at the next Women’s Visionary Congress.
Seeking guidance led me to UC Santa Cruz where I sought mentorship with Frank Barron, who was one of the Harvard Psychedelic Club and with Noel King, a deeply integrative, non-sectarian religious studies teacher who introduced me to Ram Dass. Dr. Barron was quiet compared to Timothy Leary or Ram Dass. I prefer the quieter ones – honestly I’m feeling a little mixed about giving this interview. I hope it will be useful to our communities. Anyway, for better or worse, Frank had convinced Tim Leary that the experience of mushrooms was legitimately interesting for psychological research. Ram Dass talked and wrote about him at times. Frank was very helpful as I worked with small meditation groups in Santa Cruz. He taught navigation into numinous and creative experiences with entheogens. Later I went to University of Chicago and studied with Wendy Doniger. She co-wrote with Richard Evans Schultes about Soma in Vedic religions, informing the global nature of sacraments. This was important to me because of my own disconnected, yet ironically also hyperconnected, lineage. Not being, for example, Native, Central or South American by birth, it’s helpful to realize that working with sacred plants and fungi isn’t geographically or culturally limited. It’s a global practice. That said, it is crucially important to avoid neo-colonialism in this space. Avoid cultural fetishization, domination or exploitation of sacred plants or peoples. Avoid co-opting specific culturally embedded sacred practices without permission. I encourage attentive listening with respect and gratitude towards the diverse cultures who have carried their traditions, often through challenging times, keeping plant knowledge alive. Effective plant work leads a person to respect elders and diverse traditions while growing responsible and discerning self-agency. Insight leads towards reciprocity and sustainability. There are quiet, respectful ways.
By the late ‘90s I was all-but-dissertation at NYU, studying cognitive science and sociology, having received an MA in Divinity from the University of Chicago, with BAs in Psychology and Religious Studies from UCSC . I was basically trying to understand epistemology and consciousness—what is consciousness and what constitutes knowledge or truth? Aware of my work, a group of Zeitgeist and Shaman Pharmaceuticals friends invited me back to California for a project. The email subject was, “It’s going to be big!”. So in 1998 I moved into a warehouse in Oakland with quite a cast of ambitious, good-willed characters – regulars up at the nearby Shulgin’s farm and lab.
That wild team moved on, but I continued to live in Oakland, working professionally in life sciences research kicked off by that group and continuing with my more personal passions regarding sacred plants and practices–exploring mindfulness and assisted meditations, offering occasional talks, growing community, gardening. Eventually, I became Steward of Sacred Garden Community. SGC is a sacred community of practice. In addition to our practicing community, we offer various garden events, talks and workshops about sacred plants and practices, host dharma talks. We also offer overseas workshops and meditations, hosting guided individual and group events that – for example – connect clinical practitioners to sacred community practice. A recent workshop, hosted in Jamaica in collaboration with Pauline Terri Smith of Jamaica Exotic Mushrooms and organized by the OLP Therapeutics team, was just fantastic, life-transforming for many of us. Our intention is to grow and support healthy individuals and community; to grow, know and love the venerated plant sacraments; and to care for and share our gardens. In Oakland we focus on plants that are legal to grow, avoiding work with peyote and iboga out of respect for their vulnerable status and recognizing negative impacts of historical and ongoing colonialism.
More recently, I experienced the Decriminalize Nature Oakland effort as an answered prayer for safety and honesty in our practice. After we passed the resolution I eventually moved out of active engagement with that group. “Decrim Nature” moved rapidly into political action, with an expansive political focus that falls outside my community’s quiet practice. Even so I continue working on legal, policy, training and education with Chacruna’s Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants and with several other engaged groups. Broadly, our intentions are to support safe, effective, accessible, sustainable and legal healing practice with these sacred plants, which Sacred Garden Community recognizes and consecrates as Sacraments. With careful engagement in a safe set and setting, these sacraments can connect us to deepest healing insight about who we are, and about being itself.
Chacruna Institute and Bay Area groups like SFPS [San Francisco Psychedelic Society], ERIE, Tam Integration and others have been fantastic friends to me and to Sacred Garden Community. Chacruna does a lot of work describing what safe practice is. We want to avoid new trauma as part of the healing process, so Chacruna is a wonderful friend to us and to all the Bay Area—and to global communities as well. They bring up areas of concern, to address openly, transparently and compassionately, to avoid unsafe or harmful practices. They provide careful, well-researched resources on safe practice, ethical and sustainable access to sacred plants, and legal issues around engaging these practices. I have a lot of gratitude to Chacruna for their commitment to serve as allies to under-represented voices, and for their closely reviewed publications supporting safe and ethical practice.
That’s really awesome. I know Chacruna is hosting the upcoming Psychedelic Liberty Summit this April and you are involved in it. Can you speak about what most excites you about this upcoming summit?
I’ve been to a few conferences, and the Chacruna conferences are my favorites. I used to go to the epic UC Berkeley International House Entheogenic Conferences back in the 90s. As their then “resident entheobotanist” I brought plants to the ERIE [Entheogen Research Integration Education] table at Psychedelic Science 2017. I love giving talks on plants, ethics, practices, but I prefer bringing beautiful plants to a table and chatting, learning from our amazing community.
I’ve been honored to participate in conferences put on by Chacruna. I really love Chacruna’s model. Bia Labate [Founder and Executive Director of Chacruna] is outspoken in her commitment to diversity, ethical practice, and fair access within and across sacred plant-practicing communities. I so appreciate that she faces the big issues head on without fear. It’s an amazing power that she brings. It doesn’t always make things easy for Chacruna or Bia, openly exploring these contentious areas—indigeneity and modernity, sexuality and consent, race and economies of access, queering psychedelics, plant conservation, impacts of entheogenic tourism on indigenous cultures, and so on. The Chacruna conferences dive unapologetically into those tough areas. I appreciate the focus.
I’ll be moderating what promises to be a powerful breakout panel session. We have an incredible group of speakers for it: folks like Dawn Davis, Sandor Ironrope, Miriam Volat, indigenous people, guys like me… we’re together in this session talking about what we need for respectful, ethical and sustainable access and work with entheogenic plants. I imagine there may be some heat in that session. There are some in that group, for example, who feel that no non-Native American should in any way work with peyote, neither growing it nor ingesting it. I hear and respect that stance, particularly given recent and current history with Native Americans and the availability of alternatives. There are others who absolutely feel that working with every plant sacrament is a universal right of all humans, or who feel that cultivation at least should be allowed to non-indigenous peoples. These are also fair views to be heard. That’s the kind of thing that the Chacruna conferences will go into with the commitment of respectful discourse, where we can speak openly about our different opinions. We’re going to be focusing on questions like, “What does psychedelic liberty mean? What is liberty without responsibility or respect? What is care and safety within liberty? What is the relationship between commodification, regulation, clinical practice, religious practice – and anyone being able to, say, access a mushroom that they grow themselves?”
The religious, legal, political, and clinical leadership from sacred plant practices will all be coming together to face these important questions. It should be an amazing conference.
We are very grateful to Bob for speaking with us about his personal story and the upcoming Psychedelic Liberty Summit, which you can learn more about here.