Three months ago I had the opportunity to experience an eight-hour psychedelic healing session. It was one of the most memorable and transformative experiences of my life.
The session was so impactful and healing that I feel a responsibility to share about it so that others might benefit.
A note before I dive in: Some psychedelic medicines are sadly still Illegal in many jurisdictions and it takes work to find a legal context for this type of work. Please check your local laws and be safe and visit MAPS and donate if you feel called. (Thankfully things are changing: there is a growing recognition that psychedelic medicines are super duper effective and extremely safe. And legal contexts are popping up in the US as well: the first MDMA clinics are opening this year, ketamine clinics are popping up in many states, and psilocybin was recently decriminalized in Denver and Oakland.)
Ok so here’s the story of my session:
Chapter 0: Deciding To Do It
This was not my first rodeo. I was a raver in the 1990’s. Every weekend my friends and I would go out dancing all night to warehouse parties in Toronto and Montreal. We would use substances like MDMA and LSD to bring us together, keep us awake, and have amazing adventures. It was a ton of fun and it was healing to connect with my friends in this way.
But it wasn’t until 15 years later, in 2013 that I heard about psychedelic substances being used intentionally for self development and healing. Kati and I had moved to Boulder and I went to a MAPS event where the discussion was about using MDMA to treat PTSD. I remember leaving with hope for humanity. I knew that if millions or billions of people could experience the healing effects of MDMA, we would live in a more connected and compassionate world.
Fast forward to 2018. A friend recommended I listen to Stan Grof on Tim Ferriss’s podcast. Kati and I listened as we drove north for a weekend away. In the episode I heard Stan describe the incredibly compelling research from the 1960’s that showed psychedelic substances were powerful healing medicine. Used correctly they helped people heal their trauma and move past their personal blocks.
In that episode Stan Grof describes the protocol they found to be most effective in the ‘60’s: Eye mask, instrumental music, and not much talking. Essentially an inner journey. The insight was that without outside stimulus, the psyche tends towards wholeness, and psychedelic medicines are a powerful catalyst.
I knew I wanted to try it, and I wrote about my first journey (which blew my mind) in January: https://www.willsacks.com/blog/inner-journeys
So 6 months later I was ready for another session and this time I would go deeper and longer.
Chapter 1: Preparation
I knew the session would last at least 8 hours and maybe up to 12 or even longer, so to prepare I cleared my calendar for the day of the session, and the following day as well. I wanted to go in with a clean and undistracted mind. I scheduled the session months in advance so I had time to mentally prepare. And I organized a 4 – hr playlist of instrumental music I created for this purpose. I felt ready.
The morning of the session I ate a light breakfast and headed to the venue for our 10am start time.
The setting was a safe private space that I had been to before. My sitter a practitioner that I have known for a long time and deeply trust. The context was that I was choosing to do this for my own healing, to access repressed emotions, feelings, and blocks that weren’t accessible to me in the course of regular therapy or other modalities.
This set and setting turned out to be very important. I felt safe, ready, and cared for.
I entered the space and greeted my practitioner. After some small talk she invited me to help her prepare the space for my journey. We arranged everything to my liking, I oriented myself to the space, and we did some smudging with sage. Then I sat beside her on her couch and we took a moment of silence to center ourselves on my intention.
Shortly thereafter she asked me if I was ready to begin and I said yes. I took the equivalent of 3 normal doses of the substance in accordance with the accepted practice of using a “overwhelming dose” to overwhelm the ego and access deeply buried material.
After about 20 minutes I started to “alert”. (“Alerting” is a term that Alexander Shulgin – the famous psychedelic chemist – coined for the first signs of a non-ordinary state of consciousness coming on).
The alert was my signal to “go in”: meaning I put on my eye mask and headphones, pressed play on my playlist, and laid down on a flat comfortable surface my sitter had prepared for me in the session room (very similar to a bed).
My sitter put a light blanket over me and assured me she was there if I needed anything.
Chapter 2: A Principal Insight
Shortly after I journeyed inward, I received an amazing gift. The answer to a personal issue that I’ve been struggling with for 3 years suddenly appeared in my awareness!
It feels too personal to share the details of this insight publicly just yet, but suffice to say I was overjoyed to have the answer to this thing I’ve been wrestling with for years. It appeared suddenly and I immediately broke out laughing.
The answer to my previously vexing issue was so simple. I was right there underneath the surface. I knew in that moment that I had made the right decision to investigate and plan this session, book the necessary travel, and go through with it, because I had gotten the gold in the first 5 minutes! I remember thinking that if I got nothing else from this session, it would be a massive success. Any other benefits I received would be gravy.
And gravy there was. As it turned out the gravy was very challenging and uncomfortable.
Chapter 2: A Somehow Pleasurable Outpouring Of Pain
As the medicine set in deeper, my consciousness started to drift to my body, and I started to shake. I began to feel contractions releasing from my muscles. They began small and grew into bigger and bigger waves that began to rock my being. I noticed they were emanating from my heart.
As I focussed in on it, I noticed that it felt like my heart was opening by releasing pain that had been stored there. I felt the pain leaving my heart and traveling across my chest in all directions and down my arms and legs.
The sensation was awful and chilling yet at the same time pleasurable. I started to cry and moan. The physical intensity of the experience was an 8 out of 10. Intense enough that it required all my concentration to stay with it and not dissociate or disconnect. A part of me wanted to take off my eye mask and get away from this, but I knew that my work was to head into the pain.
And as I did the contractions got stronger. At times the pain and physical sensations were so powerful that it was all I could do to keep breathing. In. Out. In. Out. More and more pain flowing out of my heart. Thoughts would pop in from time to time. “Am I going to have a heart attack”? I had to reassure myself that many others had walked this path before me.
Even so it took all my strength to just keep breathing and staying with my experience as wave upon wave of pain and sadness released from my torso and shook out through my arms and legs. I started to cry and I remember being glad I didn’t do more.
As this part of my experience unfolded, I noticed my consciousness frequently returning to an internal crossroads: two paths in my mind. The first path was to focus my attention on feeling, which would unlock more contractions in my body and amplify the painful yet pleasurable releasing that was happening.
The second path was to focus my attention on thinking or analyzing, which would shift my awareness to my head, and made the painful yet pleasurable releasing stop. This path gave me a temporary respite that quickly began to feel stagnant if I stayed there too long.
As I noticed the choice I had, I saw that I could titrate back and forth between feeling and thinking. And I intuitively knew that my work was in the feeling realm. So when I would catch myself distracted by a thought, and stuck in my head, I started to intentionally refocus on my body and go back into feeling.
And when I did, I would feel my heart open up again, releasing a molten river of burning hot pain. I would start crying and sobbing again until my mind distracted me with another thought (either consciously because I needed a rest, or unconsciously because that’s what my mind is used to doing).
In my visual field I saw giant morphing mandalas. I understood visionary art like Alex Grey’s on a new level. At the center of the mandala was me.
I felt like a sponge being squeezed by the universe. It felt like I was getting a full body emotional oil change after 39 years of running on dirtier and dirtier oil. It was painful but felt tremendously pleasurable at the same time.
At times the pain felt too big to be mine and I wondered if I was somehow tapped into the collective unconscious and was feeling the pain of all of humanity. It felt too massive to feel: An endless pit of sorrow and injustice going back millions of generations. This went on for hours.
Chapter 3: Insights About Feeling & My True Nature
As I dug through the pain, I started to find some insights about my feelings. At some point these vague insights coalesced and I saw how much of a feeling person I am, and how that part of my nature has been shut off most of my life.
It was as if my feelings had been trapped and repressed in my body for years and letting them out reconnected me how useful they are to me.
As I appreciated my feelings, I saw how important physical touch is to me (the feeling of connection that comes through the skin), and how important it is to be with people that I care about physically. I saw that I get a sense of people from being with them in person: my nervous system likes to check out other people’s nervous systems. I saw that this is a huge part of who I am and how important it is for me to use my nervous system intelligence in all areas of life. In business, in love, in friendship.
I felt into my GetFunded project and saw that I have to focus on impact companies, ie. companies with a social mission – because that’s what I’m into and the only kind of companies I get excited about. Sharing authentically and working with impact entrepreneurs is what FEELS good to me.
I saw how my love for improvisation, whether in business, in life, or in music is a result of how good it feels to improvise, to be free to create. I saw how improvisation is a fountain of energy and joy for me.
And I saw that in business I must stop working with anyone who it doesn’t feel good to do business with. Less thinking, more feeling when deciding who to work with.
As I came to these realizations I became aware that at some point as a little guy, I learned a perverse lesson about my feelings. Somehow I learned to ignore them and instead let my head tell me what to do. I reflected on all the times I decided to ignore my feelings, doing things that didn’t feel good, and not doing things that did.
I was brought face to face with all the missed opportunities that my feelings tried to lead me to, but that my mind sabotaged, and I cried. As this realization set in, it felt as though I was reparenting myself “If it feels good, do more of that, if it feels bad, move away from it.” I was finding inside me a recipe for more joy in my life: find things that feel good and do more of them!
It sounds obvious as I type it, but at that moment this seemed such a powerful revelation that I got up and danced around the room, moving my body in a way that felt GOOD. It seemed so clear and simple. As if I was given an important answer for the next chapter of my development as a human.
Focussing on this insight I was able to go back to being a child and re-experience being emotionally misread by my caregivers. I saw how I learned in those moments not to trust my feelings in order to belong. And I saw how I’ve carried this pattern into my relationships in adulthood: doing things that don’t feel good in order to please others. I swore to stop it altogether and that felt exciting.
(Note: I recently heard Gabor Maté say that as children we have two needs: attachment and authenticity, yet these two needs are often in conflict. Since we are dependent on our parents, when authenticity conflicts with attachment, we must sacrifice our authenticity in order to stay attached. Dr. Maté said this is why so many of us need to recover our authenticity later in life.)
As I recovered an appreciation for, and an experience of my feelings, I felt a tremendous freedom realizing that I can trust them. Like a treasure map I saw that they will lead me towards my biggest best life, and that shutting them down and letting my mind run the show is tantamount to abandoning my authenticity.
In summary it felt uncomfortable and also somehow glorious to become reacquainted with my feelings after they had seemingly been trapped in my body for decades. I felt so grateful to be able to have this experience, and I felt a compulsion to give this experience to my friends and colleagues so they could experience this as well.
Chapter 4: Fear and Anger
After about 4 hours I came out of the experience feeling bewildered and spun out (and just plain tired) from so much crying and convulsing. I took my eye mask off and noticed I had started to feel unsafe. I had been feeling “at 11” for hours at this point and in retrospect it seems like I had reached my capacity and my composure was breaking down.
As fear crept in, I started to get angry. I wanted someone to blame and my sitter/practitioner was the only other person there – sitting quietly, attending to my needs.
I’m not proud of what happened next but I took off my eye mask and accused my sitter of holding a flimsy container. She seemed to get a little thrown off at my hostility and we had an awkward interaction where she was asking me what I needed, and I didn’t really know, except that I felt scared and angry and it all seemed like her fault.
In that moment I felt disoriented and scared and I wanted a bunch of men around me to protect me from what seemed like the possibility of inner and outer threats. I thought I would be able to go deeper into the experience if I had certainty that I was physically safe from the outside world and from myself.
In retrospect, what I really wanted from my sitter in that moment was reassurance and resetting of context.
I’ve learned that this can be very important in these types of healing sessions. Simple statements like the following can help to reset context: “You took X dose of Y substance four hours ago. You did this for your own healing and development. You’re doing great. You’ve been crying and convulsing for the past few hours so I imagine you might be feeling tired or disoriented, but I want you to know you are safe. I’ve got you and the perimeter.”
I think part of my frustration was that I had reached my capacity of feeling and holding myself, but I knew there was deeper internal work to be done. I didn’t have the capacity to hold myself while I surrendered into this work and I didn’t trust my sitter to hold me either. It felt too scary. I thought it might entail thrashing and screaming and since my sitter was considerably smaller than me, I didn’t know if she could handle it.
I felt frustrated. My story was that with a less flustered sitter, a stronger container, and with more context set up front, I would have been able to go even deeper into the pain and sadness stored in my heart. It felt like a deep reservoir that I wanted to get to the bottom of. Yet somehow I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to the bottom of it in this session – in retrospect due to my limited capacity to feel this stuff, and also perhaps because my sitter was physically smaller than me.
Luckily a man who I had met and trusted was nearby and at my sitters suggestion, he came and sat with me and reassured me for a few minutes. I felt safe again.
Then I felt cold and like men with guns were going to come get me. Perhaps trauma stored in my DNA from the side of my family killed in the Russian revolution and holocaust. I asked my sitter to turn up the heat.
I asked my sitter what I should do, and she recommended I go back in for another 2-3 hours. I agreed that was all there was to do, so I drank some water, went to the bathroom and went back in.
(Note: I now understand why the MAPS MDMA protocol includes both a male and a female sitter in order to help head off these kinds of situations. And I also read about transference in therapy, and I now think that’s what was happening here)
Chapter 5: Sadness
Next the pain became more emotional and relational. I started to distrust my sitter and noticed a feeling of distrust for everyone in my life. I found myself facing a realization that I don’t really trust anyone, that I don’t feel safe to surrender to anyone in this world. I felt alone. A moment later I felt like a little baby. I was aware of not trusting my mother and of being alone and wanting her to come back. I felt scared I was going to die.
(Note: After this experience I started reading LSD Psychotherapy and The Way Of The Psychonaut by Stan Grof to better understand my experience. I now think I might have been re-experiencing birth trauma which Grof says is common in closed eye psychedelic sessions.)
I started to cry as I experienced the confusion, anger and sadness I must have felt as an infant. The pain and fear of being helpless and vulnerable and unsafe felt so big and overwhelming that it took a couple tries to head into it. But once I did I experienced more contractions and releasing and I cried loudly (verging on screaming). Re-experiencing that pain and fear was all consuming and terrifying.
At this point I realized how scared I felt, and I came out for a second and told my sitter that I felt scared. My sitter recommended I go back in and work with the fear. So I did. And once back in, I felt immersed in hopelessness related to a deep certainty that no one would take care of me, that I’d die, that there was no one there to rescue me. It all felt very old. From when I was 6 months old or maybe even from birth or before.
And I saw how these early experiences had created beliefs and ways of being in the world that my adult consciousness was built on. It felt axiomatic, that no-one would take care of me in life, that those I trusted would betray me, and that therefore I could trust no one.
I wondered why this feeling was there, it felt so deep in me. I felt the loneliness this fear had created for me in life. I felt into the prospect of trusting another human with my life and the fear of being let down felt overwhelming and I wept deeply.
(Note: I’ve since asked my mother about my birth and she told me her labor took three days. For two of those days there were contractions but no cervical dilation and she said “you must have been frustrated in there”. I now think this might have been what I was re-experiencing)
Chapter 6: Being Witnessed
At this low point, I realized I wanted someone to hold my hand. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone as I felt into these old feelings of loneliness and despair and the fear of surrendering and being held by another human.
I asked my sitter if she would hold my hand. She said yes and came over and sat beside me. As soon as I felt her hand in mine, the pain in my heart opened up again and I cried deeply like a baby for a while. Eventually it began to feel lonely inside my eye mask. I noticed the desire to be witnessed as I worked through this pain that felt very relational. So I took off my eye mask and opened my eyes to meet hers.
Being in connection with her unleashed the tears and a subterranean layer of anguish, which, as I felt into it, rushed to the surface and emerged as deep sobbing. We locked eyes for what felt like 10-15 minutes as I cried deeply (and she did too). I can’t remember crying like that ever in my life since I was a child. I felt she saw me in my loneliness and sadness and being witnessed in that state felt deeply healing, as if being accepted in my loneliness helped to heal wounds I had carried my entire life.
As this was happening my sitter was intermittently taking on the look of my mother, (Transference again?) and this was hard for me as I simultaneously felt distrust for her and wanted deeply to surrender to her embrace. The medicine was blurring and distorting my vision, and I had to exert effort to stay in connection with her, because my body and mind wanted to look away and stop feeling what I was feeling.
The crying was so intense that I had to fight to breathe, and eventually the pain spread to my entire body and particularly my guts. For the first time I understood why people vomit on ayahuasca, because trauma is stored in the body and this includes the guts, and the guts need to release it somehow. I felt a stirring in my stomach and told my sitter I might want to throw up. We discussed it for a bit but I decided that experience wasn’t for this session: we weren’t set up for vomit, and the prospect of throwing up in a bucket, or in a brightly lit bathroom down the hall, in my current state was unappealing to put it mildly.
Feeling the desire to release from my guts helped me understand why fasting before medicine ceremonies is a good idea. In that moment I was aware of how my poor diet over the few weeks leading up to my session were blocking my ability to release the deepest trauma in my system.
Chapter 7: Conclusion
Eventually it started to feel like I was going around in circles, and I came out of my eye mask and asked my sitter what I should do. She asked me about the circles, and we looked at the time, and it had been 8 hours since I took the medicine. She said she thought I was done, and I felt relieved as my system felt completely spent, like I couldn’t feel any more or cry any more if I tried. I felt like a tube of toothpaste that has had every last milliliter of toothpaste squeezed out of it, or a grilled cheese sandwich fried until it’s black with no more cheese inside.
We agreed to conclude. I sat on the couch feeling happy and a little disoriented and she brought a bowl of soup and set it down on a low table in the session room. We sat across from each other at the table and I ate the soup slowly without talking, feeling ragged and raw and opened up. She quietly held space for me as I slowly returned to this reality.
I had a desire to talk about my experience, but she counseled me against it and said there would be lots of time to integrate later, and that now it was time for rest.
We hung out mostly in silence for a bit, and eventually I felt ready for sleep. We ended the session and I went home and went to sleep.
The Next Day
The next day my heart felt opened in a way that I have never felt it. Like a swamp overflowing and reconfiguring in the middle of my chest. It seemed like something had shifted inside me and I was now more connected to myself. I checked in with my sitter and we talked at length about my experience, the feelings I was feeling, and the insights I had found. I decided to write about my experience and wrote what has now become this post.
Two Days Later
Two days after the session I still felt a new tenderness and openness in my heart. It felt dark and tender, but I was happy to have it feeling open. I checked in with my sitter and she told me this feeling was progress, and that with more work and focus my heart will continue to open more, and I’ll be able to feel more and have more facility in moving towards my joy.
Many Days Later: Integration
In my conversations with experts in this field (like Rick Doblin), in reading The Way Of The Psychonaut, and in attending conferences it seems to be universally agreed that while psychedelic journeywork is incredibly powerful, the real measure of effectiveness is in how successful we are integrating these experiences into our lives. After all it doesn’t do much good to have these experiences if they don’t change our every day life or the world around us.
And so that’s what I’m focussing on now. In the 3 months since my session it’s easy to see how things are different, but it’s a subtle difference. To summarize: I feel more open, I’m feeling more, I can feel my heart whenever I like, and it’s usually uncomfortable.
It’s as if this session reunited me with my feelings, and now I’m trying to find my way in the world simultaneously blessed and encumbered by them.
A simple example: The other day I was doing some audio editing on my Podcast and my editing program wasn’t acting like I thought it should. I noticed a feeling of frustration building inside me and I decided to stop what I was doing and focus on the feeling that was emerging. As I sat with my frustration (ie. anger), I found sadness underneath it and I actually started to cry, alone at my desk. I was surprised and curious at this new way of being.
After about 15 seconds of timid sobbing, I asked myself what this feeling was here to tell me, and I immediately got the answer: It was telling me that to really love myself in that moment, I should assign this task to my audio editor, accept that this episode would be delayed, and eat some breakfast. So I decided to do that and I noticed I felt better. I thought to myself “That was new” and I felt excited at the prospect of having a new ability to welcome my feelings and let them guide me in life.
I could give other examples but the macro is that I’m learning how to orient to the world in a different, more emotional, and feeling-based way. I’m attempting to put my insights into action, and I seem to be slowly succeeding.
I feel incredibly grateful to my sitter for providing me with this context and experience. And I see this session as a beginning: A subtle course correction that is slowly but surely altering the trajectory of my life.
To stay on my new trajectory it’ll be important to remind myself of these lessons often and continue to take steps to integrate them into my life. So the real work is ahead.
I am coming to the conclusion that psychedelic journeywork is an effective pathway to deep healing that is faster, deeper and more efficient than any form of talk therapy. My session felt like 10 years of therapy in a day, and many times more powerful than the 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat I did this year in Idaho (although I believe that experience prepared me for this one).
I feel changed. I feel thankful I was able to have this experience, thankful I was able to connect with emotions repressed in my heart my whole life. And I feel cautiously hopeful that these medicines will be available to more people in the years to come. I agree with what Rick Doblin said in his TED talk, “Humanity is in a race between consciousness and catastrophe. The psychedelic renaissance is here to make sure consciousness prevails.”
I’m going to keep doing the work, feeling my heart, and implementing what I saw in my session.
And I decided to travel to Peru to do a plant medicine retreat to continue deepening in my understanding of myself, these medicines, and this practice.
Thank you for reading, if you have any questions or comments, please send them to me.