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 I: The Leadup

The organizer of a local Meetup Group I frequent sent out the usual reading material prior to the monthly meeting. Feel free to read the whole thing, but if you’re not inclined, it’s the manifesto of Mother Ayahuasca (the spirit of Ayahuasca), describing herself, her intentions, and her journey through the world. It offers information while still being some degree of readable, but I had a little trouble with it because I’m generally not one for indulging in that particular brand of whimsy.
I had known a little about Ayahuasca for years, but felt strongly that I had more to learn, so I was excited to see the headlining speaker at the Meetup, who was a Curandero (a healer who uses traditional remedies, also referred to as an Ayahuascero or Shaman). As with the reading, though, I was hesitant to throw my support in the ring for this guy and his practices just yet because my background is in the more modern psychological practices. For a long time, I held the “newer is better” belief, and it still lingered around in my brain coloring my view of older practices.
When I got to sit in front of him and hear him speak, I was impressed by his sense of humor, his down-to-earth attitude, his traditional college-level education in sociology, and the laid-back assuredness that can only come from 19 years of working with Ayahuasca. I asked him the requisite, “What kinds of questions do you ask people before you work with them?”
“The biggest questions we ask are, ‘Are you on any medications right now? Do you have a history of mental illness in your family? Have you ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?’ Things like that.”
He also qualified it by saying, “That said, have I still given the medicine [Ayahuasca] to people on medications like lithium? Yes. Have I still given it to people with schizophrenia? Yes. But it’s all on a case-by-case basis after sitting down with them and discussing potential problems.”
He also said, “Usually when it’s time for you to do the medicine, the spirit of Ayahusca will call you to her.” And I definitely heard the call.
This guy had exactly the kind of practical approach I was looking for, plus I just fuckin’ liked the dude. Before we hugged each other goodbye, I overheard him mention the potential that he’d be doing a healing ceremony sometime before he headed back to Peru, so I connected with him on Facebook. He wouldn’t know the details for certain until he had confirmed enough participants to make it worth his while and had returned from the Sun Dance he was headed to (a Native American ceremony involving hours and hours of dancing).
Before he even left, he sent me a message confirming that it was happening, and providing some reading material on “la dieta,” which gives some fairly strict guidelines on the types of food you can eat leading up the ceremony. You were supposed to start it as much as two weeks in advance, but being me, I waited until like three days before. Scientifically, the point is to have very little in your stomach that might increase acidity, as Ayahuasca can be pretty hard on your digestive tract. Spiritually, the point was to eat a diet as close to that of our Peruvian predecessors as possible to maximize our ability to commune with the Spirit of Ayahuasca. So it was a lot of fruits and vegetables, and very little seasoning (if any).
I spent many of the days leading up to the ceremony reading about the science and tradition of this particular plant medicine and listening to personal accounts. Honestly, most of it was an attempt to assuage my growing nervousness about being ripped out of this world and shown the more sordid parts of my history. Every account I heard went something like, “There’s nothing particularly fun or enjoyable about the experience. Usually it’s actually pretty rough and it was one of the most trying things I’ve ever done. But it was absolutely, 100% worth it.” It was also described as, “ten years of traditional talk therapy crammed into two nights, with extensive vomiting and diarrhea thrown in.”
Really selling it, right? Anyway, a few days before the ceremony, right after I had really committed myself to the diet, I sat down to meditate. Once I was able to clear my mind, I saw a figure making its way toward me. I intuited that this was the Spirit of Ayahuasca. When she reached me, she placed her hand on my forehead, and I felt warmth and comfort and calmness. She saw me stirring about in my own mind, and took time out of her busy schedule to put me at ease. Nervousness lingered a little, but I was as ready as I’d ever be to take this journey.

Alone in Chicago

On Thursday evening I made my way to an event called The Anatomy of Connection at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The focus of the discussion was on the lack of connection and the epidemic that is loneliness as we become ever more connected via the devices in our hands (or pockets or purses or on the table… whatever – stop nitpicking).

Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of mortality than air pollution, drinking, and obesity. In one of the longest longitudinal studies of health and wellness, loneliness at age 50 had a higher predictive power of death than high cholesterol. It can suppress our immune systems, lead to depression and anxiety, and in severe cases, suicide. It’s such a problem that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Here in Chicago, a researcher had morning commuters do one of three things: engage the people around them in conversation, specifically avoid conversation with the people around them, and just go about their business as they would normally. At the beginning of the study, everybody who was tasked with talking to people thought, “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this!” By the end, those folks reported the highest amounts of happiness as compared to their counterparts.

The problem is that we all assume nobody wants to talk to us, so we don’t engage. We isolate ourselves in order to self preserve, then our empathy decreases as our defensiveness increases, and we start interpreting ambiguous social cues as negative. Moreover, it can be contagious as we all collectively avoid each other out of fear that we’ll get a weird look for saying hello or asking how someone’s doing today.

I know I’m guilty of this. I am a commuter in Chicago, and I certainly wouldn’t say I go out of my way to strike up conversations with people. I wouldn’t even say I go in my way to converse, given that folks are often pressed right up against me on crowded buses or trains. So, then what? Are we all just doomed to a life of self-perpetuating loneliness? Not if we put in the fucking effort!

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of A Road Less Traveled, said that “mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.” The therapist giving the presentation noted that we have to practice what he called, “radical acceptance.” We don’t have to approve of our state of loneliness, but we have to accept that things just aren’t right in order to go about fixing any of them.

I lost my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t replaced it. There are financial reasons involved, sure, but honestly I just don’t want a phone. I find my quality of life to be higher right now. Sure, there are parts of my day where I wish I could call an Uber or text a friend right when a thought comes up, but do you know what I do? I write that shit down, I take that note home via public transit, and I reach out when I get there.

As a result of my phonelessness, I’m more connected to the situations I’m in. I’m not constantly wondering how many Instagram followers I’ve gained in the last ten minutes since my post, I’m not wondering about any event updates for that thing coming up this weekend, I’m not fretting over an unexpected phone call (most of which I just let go to voicemail even when I do have the phone). It’s relaxing. As evidence of how fucked up I was as a result of having my phone in my pocket all the time, I occasionally think I feel my notepad buzzing in my pocket. Guess what? It is not.

On Thursday night, I walked away by myself, but in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I think more of us are lonely than we’re willing to acknowledge (or accept to stick with the vernacular). So do me a favor, if you see me on a train or on a bus or in an airport, say hi (and buy me a drink if we’re at the airport, as I’m likely at the bar). Talk to me about your day, and I’ll talk to you about mine. Wake me up from the dream state proliferated by the screen in front of my face or by the endless stream of what-if’s I’ve got running in my head. We can do this. Together.

We’re all gonna die someday, but if we chat about it with a little more frequency, we lower our chances that that day is tomorrow. Sláinte!

Rebranding

I’ve spent the vast majority of my formative years meandering through what seemed like a meaningless string of careers and experiences that had nothing to do with one another. I wanted to join the Navy, then I wanted to become a psychologist, then I wanted to work in politics, communications, sales, physical fitness, animal wellbeing, firefighting, comedy, the service industry… The list probably isn’t over.

I know I want to write going forward – that’s going to be a given from now on. In all the research I did on becoming a comedian or an author, so many of those who had already made it asked their audience, “What is it that you want to tell the world? Who are you? What is your brand?” I’ve been struggling with that ever since. Like… Why should anyone listen to me talk about my meditative practice? Why should anyone be willing to lend their precious time to me for the sake of reading what I’m writing? Entertainment? Yes, obviously I’d like to be entertaining, but shouldn’t what I’m saying have some substance?

I think it should. That’s why I’m choosing to pursue this degree in counseling psychology in Vienna. I mean, sure I just really want to move to Europe, and Vienna is calling to me, but that’s why I want to reignite my passion for the field of psychology – because I think I can actually fucking help people. I think all of my failings and falling down and getting back up can actually mean something if I put some time and energy into figuring out their links.

When I was in college, I tried acid for the first time. I was just doing it for the sake of trying it, and it was a small blip in what became years of recreational drug use, but even then I knew it was something special. I read Electric Koolaid Acid Test and I became enthralled with the history and emerging science of psychedelics. I realized that there was something sitting on the edges of our consciousness that these drugs allowed us access to, but I got caught up in the powerful current of doing drugs for fun, and it took me WAY farther downstream than I thought it even could. But now, MDMA is being proven to treat PTSD and more and more research is showing there to be some therapeutic value in these substances I was captivated by (not cocaine, though).

Since high school I’ve been a strong advocate for physical fitness and eating well (mostly). I set up training sessions for my friends and me, organized trips to the park to climb on jungle gyms or throw around medicine balls, researched ad nauseum how different muscle groups worked together, and how to maximize each of their potentials. I’ve continued reading articles through to this day about the advances we’re making in kinesthesiology and nutritional science – how we can fine-tune what we’re putting into our bodies to reach new potentials.

I’ve always been an avid hiker. It’s been one of the most frustrating things about living in Chicago – I haven’t hiked once in the last six months, and I’m pretty sure it’s driving me mad. I’m a proponent of hiking because of the physical aspect, yes, but also because I believe strongly that immersion in nature can have such an unspeakably positive effect on our emotional and mental stability. There is no substitute for being five miles into the wilderness, and basking in the sunlight while you look out on rolling hills and vast mountain ranges, and absorb the energy of the life around you.

Still, there is no substitute for being surrounded by people you love, or people you don’t even know for that matter, and laughing together – unencumbered by social mores and time and space. Going to church and singing with 300 other people, voices harmonizing (or just being kind of shitty, but at least together) is an experience we should all have regularly. Having a drink with friends or making new ones at a bar in a new city can be just what I – what anybody – needs after long hours grinding away at work. We are social creatures, and socializing nourishes us in ways that nothing else can.

I want to study what it means to be a whole human being. I want to become one, sure, but I want to help others find whatever wholeness they can. I think that all of these things are a part of it, each as important as the last. We must all look inward and outward for pieces of the pie (mmmm, pie…), and each of those pieces will help us to paint a more full, rich picture of the people we ought to and can be.

That is the future I’m signing up for. That is the future I’ve been signing up for all along. And dammit, I’m really looking forward to that pie.