May 28, 2019
I received two undergraduate degrees from Syracuse University, One was in Religious Studies and the other was in Anthropology. I studied with brilliant and challenging professors. I did well, and I enjoyed college so much, that right after graduation, I immediately enrolled in graduate school. I couldn’t learn fast enough. The years of my advanced education were the most stimulating and exciting of my life. I studied with world renown religious scholars, and world famous anthropologists. In graduate school, I was educated by visionary psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists. I asked thousands of questions, read hundreds of books, spent months in classrooms, and then spent two and a half years training to become a therapist while seeing clients. This challenging experience showed me how to separate the false from the real.
At Syracuse I studied with David Miller, a world famous Neo- Jungian thinker. He was James Hlllman’s(the last person to head the Jung Institute in Zurich while Jung was alive) best friend and had been very close with Joseph Campbell. Though, he admired Campbell, he knew him as a person who was a man of his time and because of that he “never discussed women or politics with him”. Another amazing character I met there was a Professor named Ageahananda Bharati. He was an Anthropologist and a Religious Scholar. He had been born to Austrian Aristocracy, was drafted into Hitler’s army, and when he was sent to India, deserted and became a wandering sunnyasin monk who walked across India twice, barefoot. By the time I met Bharati, he was in his late seventies. He had been the head of the American Anthropological Association, and had once been the head of the Eastern Studies Program at the University of Washington. He had to leave that position because he had been giving undergraduate coeds LSD and instructing them in Tantric Sex. A colorful lapse in judgement, for sure.
I took every class I could with Professor Bharati. He was brilliant, contentious, funny and sometimes rude. Kids would come to class with dreadlocks and he would tell them what a dumb religion rastafarianism was, and that Haille Selassie was a terrible man(It’s true) with no cultural sensitivity at all. I once took two of his classes simultaneously, and once after taking the midterms in both of his classes, he demanded that Robert Mitchell stand up. Frightened, I did. “Are you Robert Mitchell?”, he asked. I nodded affirmative. “You received A’s on the midterms in both of my classes, are you stalking me?” “No,” I said. “Nobody gets A’s in two of my classes simultaneously!” He roared. I sat back down glad that I was not in trouble.
One day, while he was talking about the Indigenous people of the American Southwest, and Northern Mexico, I made the near intellectually fatal mistake of asking him a question about the Yaqui Indians. The word Yaqui snapped him to attention. He pointed at me, accusingly, and shrieked, “You read that liar Castaneda, don’t you?” “I slid down in my seat. “Uh yeah.” I replied meekly. “The Yaquis don’t even use Peyote in their culture,” he stated contemptuously. He then rattled off ten things about Carlos Casteneda’s books that were easily proven to be false, and spoke of the anthology he had edited called, “Tracking Castaneda,” which on one hand was about how fictitious Castaneda’s books were, and on the other, how gullible and indiscriminate the minds were that consumed them by the millions.
He told a story about seeing an album in a record store called “Aloha Amigo,” and how stupid this statement was, and then compared them to Castaneda’s books. He showed how Castaneda’s books were a hodgepodge of psychedelia, caucasian people’s fantasies about indigenous religion, Guirdjieffs’s thinking, Tibetan Buddhism, and any other New Age influence you could fit in. He was on the one hand territorial, because Castaneda had presented himself as a fellow anthropologist. But on another, he was a truth teller intent on deconstructing his fictions. More than anything he wanted people to understand just how desperate for, and bereft of mysticism western culture was, whether they were aware of it or not. He felt Castaneda exploited this desire, and then lied about it.
Today these same dynamics are in play in the modern psychedelic world. People declare themselves “Shamans”, or “Shaman’s apprentices”. Both of these things mean the same thing. “I like working with psychedelics, but I have no education.” Many of these people found themselves around people using psychedelics at festivals and found it made them feel powerful and useful to interact with people in these states. In the Bufo Community, it has recently been revealed that its’ two most well known practitioners have been doing terrible things to people under the guise of healing. (Deaths have even been reported. ) In both cases they made themselves a big part of the experience which is what happens when a practitioner wraps their unconscious narcissistic wounds around the role of “Shaman” or “Medicine Man” or “Medicine Woman.” In both cases the providers made the experience more about them, than the inherent healing capacity in the psyche of the people they administered the “medicine” (medicine is for children by the way).
On my first day of graduate school, in my first class on counseling, I sat in that class, so full of myself. I had just graduated “Cum Laude” from Syracuse as a member of “Theta Chi Beta,” The National Religious Studies Honor Society. The keynote speaker at my induction ceremony was Robert Thurman. I was going to be the smartest therapist since Jung. Only the first thing I learned was it doesn’t matter how smart, or how insightful you were, if you didn’t have empathy. If someone sat down and said, “Sorry I’m late, there was terrible traffic,” the best reply was “So, the traffic made it hard to get here.” “Yeah,” an excited client would say, “And I was fighting with my girlfriend and left late. “So You were fighting with your girlfriend, and the traffic was bad, it sure hasn’t been a great afternoon. “ And bam! We were on our way. I didn’t need to be Carl Jung, I just needed to demonstrate that I was listening, and had empathy for my client, and their unconscious would notice I was listening and take me down the rabbit hole to their furthest depths. On that day, the woman I sat with doing exercises was a housewife from Los Altos whose kids had grown and moved out, so she now wanted to be a therapist. I seethed thinking about how intellectually demanding my college experience had been, and now here I was doing exercises with an empty nester. It turned out that with her empathy and her kindness, she was probably the best therapist in my entire class!
Now I am in a world of “Psychedelic Integration” where people who have online degrees talk about “Plant Medicine” because it is a trendy way of talking about psychedelics. When I first studied Psychedelics in the early 1990s, there was no such thing. There had already been nearly fifty years of scientific study of psychedelics and they didn’t have to be renamed to make them seem cooler, more current or exotic. Psychedelics was a big top that contained naturally occurring psychedelics as well as those that were created by chemists. They didn’t need to be romanticized or mythologized. They were powerful, they were effective, and they were life changing.
The same weaknesses in our culture that a generation before gave rise to “A Yaqui Way of Knowledge”, are giving life to “Plant Medicines,” “Shamans” and “Psychedelic Integration”. People who didn’t feel the call the to help others before Psychedelics gave them an angle to get into healing professions, or felt the need to educate themselves about how the Psyche works, suddenly feel called to offer people “Plant Medicines” and call themselves “Shamans”. People head down to the Amazon or gather in living rooms taking part in Ayahuasca ceremonies that are a recent invention, designed to get as many people paying for a ceremony at once, maximizing, the currency intake for the provider. In most of these circles, it’s impossible for the administers to properly care for people, or to actually know what is going on with them. There are exceptions, but just as with Modern Doctors, most of the healing arts are done one on one, even if that’s not the most financially efficient way to do it. Imagine going to a hospital and having one or two doctors on call and twenty people in a triage room, all traumatized at the same time. That is the modern Ayahuasca experience.
Still others bombard people with multiple chemicals simultaneously. Psilocybin, MDMA, 5 MEO DMT in the same afternoon and charge desperate suffering people through the nose to have their brains chemically assaulted under the guise of “healing.” Each of these compounds on their own, are very potent and have been shown to create great changes in one’s consciousness. Anybody’s need to combine these substances, shows a lack of dexterity with any of them. It’s a consumer fantasy that “more is more”. The real skill is to use as little of singular materials as possible, and facilitate an experience that is more about how if given an opportunity to access the deeper realms of consciousness, the ego will right itself in its’ orientation from the lesser to the greater. From uninformed anxiety and depression to informed peace and inspiration.
This essay reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” The Hero, Josey Wales, in possession of a folky common sense, is crossing a river with a young compatriot who has has been shot in battle. The boy is clearly suffering and a snake oil salesman notices, and approaches them, uninvited with a bottle of his magic tonic. He holds it out and tells Josey , “Your young friend could use some help, this is it, one dollar a bottle, it works wonders on wounds.” “I bet it works wonders on just about anything,” Josey Wales replies. “It can do most anything,” the snake oil salesman states enthusiastically. . Josey Wales then spits tobacco juice onto his lapel, and asks, “How’s it with stains?”