Where The Wild Seans Are

While the breweries, dispensaries, and museums made for amazing time-consumers, the real reason I was in Boulder was to check out Naropa University, as their Master’s Program in Counseling Psychology with a focus on Wilderness Therapy is the coolest fucking program I’ve ever heard about. To give you a brief rundown, you spend two and a half years checking the boxes to become a licensed counselor, much of which is spent outdoors doing backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, kayaking, and horseback riding all over the US. I mean… come the fuck on. How cool is that shit?

Anyway, the day of my visit started with sitting in on a Human Growth and Development class required for all first year students in the program. The teacher had been at it for 32 years. She was frank as all getout, full of fiery calmness, wonder, and humility, and she reminded me a lot of my aunt. She felt compelled to tell you things right as they cropped up in her head, and they were always relevant, informative, and entertaining, while still being kind of an interruption. I loved her.

The class started with a few minutes of silence and meditation, then a “bow in.” I read about the bowing before I got there, and it sounded a little on the hippie side for my tastes, but after actually being a part of it I think they converted me. After letting me introduce myself, the badass teacher picked up where the class left off last time – on the fourth of five developmental stages as defined by Robert Keegan. After about an hour and a half of lecture, we broke off into small groups of 4 or 5 and created arts-and-crafts renditions of the five stages. Glitter and paint and Elmer’s Glue were thrown onto large pieces of construction paper, then we went around describing our chosen visualizations. Then we went on break.

The second half of the class was taught by the graduate assistant. She started off with a one-word check-in on our emotional states, then we got up out of our seats to stomp our feet, grounding us in our bodies. The lesson was on post-traumatic growth, which can be an exhausting topic for everyone involved. Feelings get brought up, emotions run high as we silently launch into remembrances of our own traumas, and then we’re supposed to learn how to counsel someone on them on top of that. It was invigorating and a real reality check as to what this career involved. We ended the class with five pushups, ten jumping jacks, a final check-in, and a bow-out. Fuckin’ loved it.

I had some time in between the class and my meeting with the admissions counselor so I got some (of course the ingredients were organic and locally sourced) empanadas and a beer. I made it to the main campus (there are three, soon to be two) early, and read out on the lawn in between the buildings. The sun was shining, there were attractive people doing yoga and acroyoga in the grass, birds were chirping in the trees, and you could see the mountains in the distance.

I was wearing my Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) shirt, which just had the logo on the front. A gorgeous young lady in pigtails walked by while I was standing in the office waiting for the counselor, pointed at my shirt and said, “I love your shirt! MAPS, right?” I’m sure I blushed and said something meaningless like, “That’s right.” Honestly I was too drunk on awesome to solidify any of it into memory. 

The counselor was kind and knowing and wrote down the book I was reading so she could look into it later. While we talked I found myself thinking, “Oh that’s some hippie nonsense” with a fair amount of regularity, but when asked, I had to admit that I did indeed practice multiple forms of meditation (including mindfulness and loving-kindness) and yoga, I had a daily alarm on my phone to remind me to practice gratitude, and I journalled regularly about my thoughts and emotions. Fuck, I’m totally a hippie, sort of. Fit right in here, though!

Next I met with the career counselor, who just graduated from the program last May. She described her reaction to first reading about the program like, “Holy shit! This exists?!”

“Fuckin’ right?! That was VERBATIM my reaction!” I shot back at her. She, like pretty much everyone else I met, was beautiful and fit and authentic and captivating. 

I hit up a couple restaurants before making my way back to the hostel for an early bedtime, then I got up before the sun again, hit my weed vape pen, and made my way to the lobby for coffee and waffles. There was a second floor that was entirely unoccupied, so I read until the sun came up, and did some breathing and stretching exercises (the hostel beds were not the kindest to my back). Quick shout out to the Wim Hof Breathing Method – I definitely think it helped me adapt quickly to the lower oxygen up there even in the face of my extreme lack of cardio lately. 

Serendipitously, the trails were closed to bikes on Wednesdays, and the road leading to the trail was closed in the middle of the day, so I was completely alone for the duration of my four mile hike. It was serene and it allowed me a lot of time to integrate my experience in Boulder. The main takeaway being, “I’m gonna fucking love it here.”

Ayahuasca Part IV: Takeaways

What do you say about an experience that challenges your notions of what’s real and what isn’t? Well… This, I guess.

I had done plenty of psychoactive substances prior to my experience with Ayahuasca, and I did a fair amount of academic research on it leading up to the ceremony, but there just isn’t anything that prepares you for the kind of journey I was taken on. Every image that I saw with my eyes closed felt real – as if I wasn’t coming up with the images on my own, but I was being granted new eyes to see things that had always been there. Like in dreams where you’re convinced that you’re actually in that reality, but I never lost the sense that I left my reality – only added on new layers.

I interpreted the universes I saw as universes that exist simultaneously with this one. I knew that the spirits I encountered were very real, and many were there to help me. Not only that, but the other people in the room seemed to be able to tune into the visions I was having, and react to them in ways aimed at assisting me with them.

Prior to “releasing the dragon,” I had vivid images of the Spirit of Ayahuasca in a humanoid form, her hair made of long vines, her skin translucent, her heart and veins clearly visible, green, and glowing with life. Her and the Shadow Dragon stood side-by-side, arms outstretched, clearly holding space for my healing process as a blinding white light came from behind them. 

At the end of the ceremony on night two, Randy said, “I don’t want this to come off as egotistical, but I view myself as somewhat of a healer, and I was trying to help Sean release some spirits.”

“Let me set your mind at ease,” I said when the feathers were passed my way, “You hit the nail on the fucking head with that one.”

I view myself as an empiricist – I hold a very scientific worldview, but as any good scientist would, I leave open the potential that my view can be improved upon or disproven based on new evidence. This particular set of evidence caused me to challenge a lot of notions. It also ripped open a lot of old wounds, reexposing them to the open air, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t ready for it.

I can see how, with the right guidance in the weeks following the ceremony, this would’ve been ultimately very good for me. I did not, however, have any plan whatsoever for the integration of this experience into my life. I should have set myself up with counseling to accompany this event, but I did not. I should have sought help to interpret these images and form constructive ways of dealing with them, but I did not. 

I do not see myself doing a ceremony again for some time – I still have a lot to go over spiritually, mentally, and emotionally after this go round. If/when I do embark on anything even remotely similar to this, I will have a very particular counseling plan set up so I don’t fall back into depression like I did this time. Without that plan, all those wounds just left me thinking, “Ow, this really fucking hurts,” as opposed to, “Here’s what I can do to help these wounds heal.” 

Ultimately, I’m glad I did the ceremony. I’m glad that I stepped outside my comfort zone to explore my reality in such an expansive way – I am, afterall, a dedicated explorer. Also, now that I’ve done this the wrong way, I feel certain that I’ll do it the right way going forward. If you choose to do anything like this, make sure you’re set up with a strong support system afterward, and be open about the fact that things aren’t okay. This particular form of medicine is powerful and can lead to amazing insights, but it’s also unrelentingly honest about where your weak points are, and without the proper guidance, that can really fuck your shit up for a while.

Take an honest inventory of whether this or any other psychedelic is the right choice for where you are in life before you do it, and make sure you’ve got a plan for afterward, otherwise you’re just doing drugs, and potentially causing more harm than good. Happy traveling.