Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground

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.

In this interview, we reconnect with Dr. Harris after 5 years to discuss her timely new book, and its potent message for the rapidly growing overground psychedelic movement. As exciting as it is to have the first buds of legal psychedelic therapy sprouting, we cannot confuse a certificate from a 6-month-long facilitator program with a decades-long (or centuries-long) lineage and system of apprenticeship, and we should deeply heed the words of our elders as brought forth by Dr. Harris in her new book.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me Rachel, it is so great to reconnect with you! At a time when most of the psychedelic hype has become about decriminalization, therapeutic use, medical research, and entrepreneurial endeavors, your new book Swimming in the Sacred chooses instead to look backwards at the rich tradition of underground healers. What inspired you to write this book?

The book really grew out of conversations with some of the women elders following the Listening to Ayahuasca book. I’m the first person they’ve trusted to talk to after decades of silence.

I’m as excited as anyone about the psychedelic research findings but who really knows the most about how these medicines can be used for psychospiritual development over a lifetime? The underground elders have decades of experience working with people over time, not just for symptom reduction as in the studies, but for unfolding personal growth. Think of Albert Hofman who discovered LSD-25 – he lived to be 102 years old and took his last LSD journey at the age of 97. Healing and learning from the medicines expands over a whole lifetime. Or as one woman elder said, “As you use the medicines over time, the process becomes more refined. You get more specific help.

Much of the current psychedelic wave seems to be coming from a “masculine” energy – the scientific research is logical and reductionist, the for-profit companies are seeking to capture market share, and so on. I’m curious why you felt it was important to highlight underground women healers in your book specifically, and if it was seeking to balance these energies out.

The women have been doubly silenced. First by gender in all the usual ways and second by their illegal work. They have chosen to work underground, risking everything, because their own experience with these entheogens has been so powerful and healing.

I also felt the women were more connected in their relationship with the medicines, the plant spirits, what anthropologists call unseen others. These relationships are outside the consensus reality of Western science.

I wanted to preserve the perspectives of the women elders almost as an historical document. They have a unique background in that they worked for years on their own healing, then apprenticed for years, and only then, began working with clients. The current crop of psychedelic therapists will not have their years of experience with the medicines or with mentors.

You are very clear in identifying that the women healers in your book are doing something distinctly different from “psychedelic therapy.” How does their approach, intention, and methodologies differ from what a psychedelic therapist does?

The women elders are NOT therapists. I see them as ceremonialists or priestesses. We do not really have an appropriate category for them in our Western culture. If a client needs on-going integration sessions, the elders will refer them to sympatico therapists. And if the client has more questions, they might suggest another journey.

In the current research protocol we are blending two distinct roles – that of the psychotherapist and that of the sitter or guide. These two roles require different skills and gifts. For instance the women elders are not focused on diagnosis or symptoms. They look for transformation in the client. One woman said, “I watch for a shift in how the person embraces being alive.” This is a much bigger perspective on how to use the medicines.

Do you feel that the women healers interviewed in your book (along with the other underground healers of all genders) represent an emergent thread of Western psychedelic shamanism?

A few of the women elders in my book were trained by indigenous shamans. But others did apprenticeships with elders from the psychedelic community like Stan Grof, Ralph Metzner, and Leo Zeff. They share a world view that is distinctly non-Western, that goes beyond time, space and causality. As one woman said, “You become the medicine – you walk it, you pray it.”

I think our Western culture is in the learning process of how to use these medicines. My hope is that as a culture, we will learn to work with these medicines in lots of different ways so people have safe choices to work in a sacred, spiritual way or in a medical way, and that there’s a range of options, all of them safe and available.

Where is the line between a neo-shamanism that appropriates other cultures in a disingenuous or harmful way, and one that is an authentic revivification of an ancient cross-cultural practice?

Our Western culture has lost the appreciation for apprenticeships, long years of being at the elbow of a teacher, osmosing the teachings. I understand that the current cohort of psychedelic therapists can’t take years to apprentice but they can do their best to get more entheogenic experience with appropriate elders.

One of the women I interviewed suggested people ask those advertising journeys, “Who authorized you to serve this medicine?”

This direct question cuts to the heart of appropriation. What’s your lineage?

What is the one most important thing that we in the current psychedelic movement need to integrate from the wisdom of the women healers interviewed in Swimming in the Sacred?

I’ll quote from the women I interviewed to answer this:
“No one escapes dismemberment.”
“How do we work with things that are difficult?”
“Say ‘Yes’ to everything that is.”
“[Remember] how to live on this earth and be joyful.”
“We are responsible for our intentions and our choices. Responsible to ourselves and to humanity.”

We are very grateful to Dr. Harris for taking the time to speak with us. Check out our podcast and past interviews with her here:

Podcast with Author and Ayahuasca Researcher Rachel Harris
Listening to Ayahuasca: Interview with Dr. Rachel Harris
Underground Ayahuasca: Discussing Pitfalls and Therapeutic Potential with Dr. Rachel Harris