And women are the wisdom holders
In the first pages of her 2023 nonfiction book Swimming in the Sacred, author Rachel Harris dedicates it to “the women who have practiced the art of guiding journeys despite great legal risk to themselves.” She goes on to describe these women as “the true heroes of the psychedelic renaissance.”
When I first read that line, I couldn’t help but see in my mind’s eye a list of the people typically named in the histories… Gordon Wasson, Stan Grof, Allan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Albert Hoffman, Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, Wade Davis…
The names came to mind easily, and the parade of men marched proudly on. Swimming in the Sacred effectively interrupts the parade of men to introduce 15 unknown women who have been ethically, gratefully and quietly working in the psychedelic underground for the past two decades.
Women and only women
By choosing to interview only female guides as research for her book, Harris highlights how the psychedelic resurgence we are now experiencing is very much dominated by the (mostly male) scientific researcher’s point of view. She discusses how that came to be, and why it matters.
“Even now, men dominate the university research teams studying the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, and are most often the presenters at psychedelic conferences and the authors of psychedelic books. Even when women are acknowledged, their roles are downplayed.”
Wise women are left out, she explains, because current research and legalization efforts are embedded in a patriarchal, capitalistic system that has no access to the wisdom of elders who have been doing it underground all along. That means that as we create new laws, policies and social norms around psychedelics, we’re at risk of overlooking the knowledge these women have built up over the years.
But who is Rachel Harris?
Harris is a psychologist who practiced for more than 40 years. She’s also a scientist at heart, having published more than forty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals. She’s taken many journeys herself over the years, with several different guides, different plants, and in different contexts. She’s a trustworthy guide on the reader’s journey into the underground.
She’s speaking to witches
Harris’ voice spoke directly to me in Chapter One. History points to women as the ones who have worked directly with medicinal plants, she says, calling out the “herbalists, midwives and witches” who administered entheogenic medicine in traditional cultures.
These women have been silenced by the patriarchy, which explains why they don’t appear in my inner parade of psychedelic heroes. Instead, these women found training, created relationships and built communities that exist outside the patriarchal institutions where they might have earned notoriety.
“They’re not therapists, though they’re therapeutic,” writes Harris. “Most of them don’t have graduate degrees — they’re neither researchers nor medical professionals. They are not ministers, as they do not belong to religious institutions. But their work is sacred.”
Centring the sacred
By allowing her sources to use pseudonyms, Harris reveals stories that couldn’t otherwise be told in the pages of a mainstream book. She explains that she gained their trust by offering a collaborative role in the writing of her book. They had final say in how their stories were told.
Through this unconventional but creative approach to working with sources, Harris fills in a massive gap in the unfolding story of how humans can and may go on sacred entheogenic journeys in the future. She reminds us to respect the unofficial knowledge women have gathered in the underground over centuries, with many different medicines and in many different traditions.
We meet Radha, for example, who described how her rigorous training with a Shipibo shaman in a remote of Peru area required her to “sleep on the ground in the Amazon with bugs crawling over her.” Alongside Radha’s exotic story is that of Medridth, “the eldest of the elders” who trained with the American psychologist Leo Zeff.
It’s clear there are multiple paths to learning how to take people on sacred journeys. A woman must have her own psychedelic experiences, follow her intuition and make her own way.
What makes a good psychedelic guide?
Harris goes on to explain what makes a good guide, and what a safe container looks like when entheogenic plants are used for spiritual development. She notes how the women she interviewed have devoted themselves to their own healing and spiritual development. The learning never stops, and as they gain more and more experience, they spend time passing on their knowledge to apprentices.
In Chapter Eight, Harris describes how some female guides in sacred traditions have developed a wholly different set of values, one that listens to “immediate and intuitive knowing.” They must learn to rely on this intuition when guiding journeys, she says. You can’t Google it.
Ever the scientist, Harris critiques this point of view, but gently. “One could criticize that approach for not being evidence-based, but we have so little data about how to use the entheogens that experience-based intuition may be our best practice.”
What women have to offer
Thankfully, Harris relays her own experiences with ayahuasca. It’s wonderful to hear her describe her experiences and how they changed her. Along the way, I realize the author has earned a place in my inner psychedelic parade.
And, though she never reveals the identities of the 15 women guides she interviewed for the book, she includes several stories about aboveground psychedelic women. They belong in the parade of heroes, too.
There was Ann Shulgin, who died in 2022, and was a lay therapist who used MDMA when it was legal. Psychedelic researcher and therapist Dr. Rosalind Watts combines evidence-based approaches with older ways of knowing. Pharmacist and author Connie Grauds apprenticed for 26 years in the jungles of Peru.
This is an important work, but it must be noted that Harris is a white woman. At one point, she explains that most of the 15 underground guides she interviewed are white women. Two are Native American, one is a Peruvian-born U.S. citizen, and one is African American.
Harris’ sources and stories present a white woman’s point of view. There is nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to notice. Feminists still have work to do to centre ways of knowing in the psychedelic sphere that have traditionally been ignored.
Let’s create safe spaces for all wise women to speak, especially those who have historically been silenced, threatened and ignored. Let’s really listen to what they say. Let’s trust their ways of knowing. Let’s go to their art shows, read their books and listen to their podcasts.
Women must lead the way
Though it’s clear we have work to do to provide equitable, ethical access and opportunities for all women, this book ends on a positive note. This is much more than a trend that we’ve suddenly tapped into because science has been finally freed from legal restrictions.
Harris writes: “The women guides of the psychedelic underground have been in relationship with these medicines for decades, providing a sacred container for entheogenic journeys. We need to hear from them now more than ever.”
An instructive and inspiring ending
I found Harris’ point of view instructive and inspiring. Although medically supervised psychedelic journeys for mental health are an important facet of the current psychedelic renaissance, I believe people should also have access to sacred experiences that occur in nature, in community, and that are safely, ethically guided by people who emerge from sacred traditions. This book is showing the way to that future.