In this conversation with Martijn Schirp of Synthesis, a legal psilocybin retreat center in the Netherlands, we explore what the reemergence of psychedelic access and entheogenic healing means for society at large, the role of nature in therapeutic settings, the importance of collective visionary experiences, and what a psychedelic culture truly is.
Thanks again for speaking with us, Martijn. Here in the US, psilocybin mushrooms being decriminalized in Denver and Oakland has been big news, and there’s this hope that as psilocybin and other psychedelics become more widely available, it will shift things in a positive direction. As someone who lives in a country where psilocybin truffles are legal, what is the cultural atmosphere like, and how do you think it has influenced society?
I think the surprise for many people is that psilocybin use in the Netherlands is actually lower than in other countries. It’s the same thing in Portugal—when they decriminalized all drugs, use went down. Truffles are still kind of still stigmatized here—there is still a lot of misinformation around them, and most people that use them are tourists who come to the Netherlands and just want to get high. Even with this hedonistic type of use, there are very few cases of anything seriously going wrong, which goes to show how inherently safe psilocybin is. But we still don’t know what the consequences on our society are.
I think the big difference that we see between the Netherlands and Denver is that here in the Netherlands, truffles are regulated and taxed like a food product, and you can go into a smart shop to buy them and get additional information and harm reduction techniques. I think it’s a very positive movement. People have the right to alter their consciousness as long as they don’t harm others. As a European looking at the US criminal stance on psychedelic users, it seems incredibly barbaric to me.
Agreed, and I’m so glad the tide seems to be turning.
Yeah, the momentum is definitely very powerful. I hope we can find some compassionate trauma-healing awareness in the cultural dialogue around this, because we have a lot of work to do as this generation is awakening. Treating others as less than human and treating nature as less than ourselves is, I think, one of the gravest wrongdoings that we humans are capable of. I try to have compassion rather than judgement about it. We have an incredible amount of generational trauma from thousands of years of being unsafe in nature and around other people, but at the same time being stewards and caring for nature and each other is a responsibility for us to take up. I think psychedelic companies and nonprofits have a huge role to play in bringing community back, and helping people take off their masks and relax their hierarchies.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I’d love to talk about nature and safety. When I imagine a typical clinical therapeutic experience with psilocybin, it’s within some sort of treatment room and not outside in nature. People have been checked really thoroughly beforehand and there’s always someone there in case anything goes wrong. It’s a very safe, therapeutic container, but it tends to be removed from nature.
Now when you look at the traditional psilocybin experience, most experienced psychonauts would say, “Oh if you take mushrooms you’ve got to do it in nature!” Of course no one’s getting a medical check first, you’re just walking into the woods by yourself or with some friends. There could be hazards such as storms, or wildlife, or a stream you fall into. The risk is usually fairly minimal, but the container in nature is not as tightly held and “safe” as the cocoon of the indoor clinical experience. Yet we gain so much from these kinds of experiences in nature.
So I’m curious, do you ever foresee being able to provide experiences in nature as part of your therapeutic offerings at Synthesis, or are they separate sorts of things?
I think nature is essential. Our day-to-day life is so disconnected that we’re kind of disassociated from our own instincts. With the element of the unknown, we thrive: it’s essential, and awakens all our senses and biological systems. We already know how to be fundamentally connected with nature because we co-evolved with it.
There’s a benefit to both kinds of experiences. The therapeutic one with an eye mask on and listening to a curated playlist for an inner journey can really help people to focus on the internal process and personal transformation. In my experiences in nature, the journey is more externally directed and more about what our responsibility is towards the world, the interconnectedness of life, and the onus of stewardship. I think both experiences are very much needed.
At Synthesis we see ourselves in between clinical and recreational. My dream is definitely to have a natural playground and still have the same safety. We have a garden and a stream and natural elements in our wellness area, but ideally we’d like to have more nature involved for sure. One of the things that fascinates me the most is that even in the most clinical settings, let’s say hospital room, people will have deep mystical experiences and their nature relatedness goes up significantly—it almost doubles. Even in these clinical settings, people awaken to the realization that they want to be closer to nature, which nourishes their being.
As the executive director of a for-profit psychedelic retreat, I’m sure you’re aware that some people are concerned about for-profit corporations being in the psychedelic space. I would love to hear you speak on the rightful place of business and how it can copacetically be part of the movement, along with the decriminalization movement and nonprofits.
This plurality of movements is a very good thing. I’d be extremely worried if corporations pushed for legislation to prevent individual use. At the same time, full legislation without any regulation also scares me, as I wouldn’t want people using psychedelics in uninformed ways, or have them be marketed in unwholesome ways.
Honestly I believe that we as a culture are not mature enough to fully have the answers to these big questions. I think it will take time for corporations and decriminalization movements and the clinical movements to come together and create the best way forward. Education and increasing access are important first steps.
Nonprofits will take longer to scale than for-profit companies. I think the B-Corporation model is amazing, as it brings an inherent social responsibility. At Synthesis we are aiming for the a quadruple bottom line of People, Profits, Purpose, and Planet. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. Not every company is the same. I hope to show that we can actually build something of tremendous value with Synthesis that has this sense of responsibility to the people and to the planet. I think time will tell.
Let’s project even further into the future, and imagine a world where psychedelics have been reintegrated and remembered. Looking deeper into the future and also, in a way, looking deep into the past and seeing how ancient cultures used psychedelics in initiation rites and as cornerstones of their societies, what do you see beyond the building of clinics like Synthesis? What comes to your mind and your heart as you feel into what a truly integrated psychedelic future might look like?
This question awakens two forms of interpretations: one is scaling in width, which means access to more people, and the other is in the depth of the experiences offered.
Like many people, I really could have benefited from a coming of age initiation when I was younger. Becoming a man, dealing with my demons and unresolved family issues, stepping up and being seen as a transformed being in the culture at large… that’s what we need and what we are missing. But we need wisdom and education on how to use these tools to help people do that and to connect with their responsibility to the culture. That’s where we will be in 30 to 50 years, hopefully sooner.
I’m also very much inspired by the Eleusinian mysteries, where you had multiple-day ceremonies in places that were purposely built just to honor the mystery of life and to help people find their true purpose and potential. We don’t have any places where we can sit in deep contemplation or collective awakening, which feels ridiculous to me. I would love to see new kinds of temples built for these higher arts and visionary tools. If you take seriously that set and setting are potentially even more important than the catalyst substance, then imagine the most beautiful, aesthetically enhanced, welcoming, inclusive dream space that this kind of temple could provide. I would love to see that one day.
I love that, and I share your perspective that beyond the personal healing, what we need is a return to the mystery. It’s the essential dimension that’s been lost during our journey into reductionism and materialism.
We’ve swung the pendulum far into the external and physical world, and kind of left meaning behind. What we need to do is let that pendulum swing inside again, without losing what we’ve gained. I think that’s very important.
Agreed, and I think this is a wonderful thing to highlight. Even if the decriminalization folks get their way and everything’s decriminalized, and even if the medicalization and for-profit folks get their way and there are retreat centers on every street corner, there is still that gap of the mysteries, the temples, the initiation rites… the true integration of what psychedelics teach us needs to be re-woven into our cultural and ontological fabric.
I’m very curious to see what comes out of this awakening. It seems to be an event horizon that we can’t look past.