Doug, a 43-year-old startup CFO in San Francisco, attended several ayahuasca ceremonies during the COVID-19 quarantine — but he didn’t leave his home for them. Instead, the leader shipped him and other experienced participants the ayahuasca, and they prepared over Zoom calls and Signal threads. Then, they all held their own ceremonies at the same time, “physically solo, but energetically together,” he explains. “I sure miss the physical container, and you can feel the difference in terms of energy, but you can build a different level of intimacy with the medicine.”
John White, owner of the online cannabis resource CNBS.org, attended a virtual ayahuasca ceremony during the pandemic as well after receiving the ayahuasca at an in-person ceremony in anticipation of lockdown. In his case, the participants actually communicated with one another over Skype. “Having to set up your own space is quite therapeutic in itself, as you can tailor the conditions for yourself,” he says.
It’s not just clandestine ceremonies that are adapting their operations to the digital age in the face of the coronavirus. The New York City mental health clinic Mindbloom began offering remote ketamine therapy sessions before the pandemic, and social distancing imperatives motivated the company to further develop it. Patients are prescribed ketamine tablets that they can take at home, and a clinician video-chats with them while they’re under the effects.
“With the onset of COVID, we’ve seen an astounding increase in both the number of people seeking treatment and severity of their symptoms,” says Mindbloom’s founder and CEO Dylan Beynon. “This pandemic has changed the paradigm for increasing access to mental healthcare. Telehealth is the future, and harnessing the dual powers of technology and psychedelic medicine has allowed us to help more people in more places than we could have imagined.”
Socially Distant Psychedelic Healing
Virtual ceremonies and treatments constitute several of many ways the psychedelic community has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Some practitioners, in fact, have continued their operations and made modifications to protect clients. The Inscape Recovery program, an ibogaine aftercare drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Central Mexico that uses ayahuasca as part of their treatment protocol, restricted guests to those already in Mexico and required that they sit spaced apart during ceremonies, according to David Wagner, who runs the program.
David Mahjoubi, MD, founder of Ketamine Healing Clinic of Los Angeles, similarly decided to keep his clinic open, but he spread out appointments to minimize the number of people in the reception area, required that staff wear face masks, and asked patients who had recently traveled, felt sick, or come in contact with someone who was sick to wait two weeks before coming in.
“I realized the quarantine was becoming very difficult for many people based on the calls we were getting,” he says. “So we decided to stay open to offer infusions for depression and anxiety exacerbated or caused by the quarantine and world events. Additionally, I have many patients who come in for maintenance infusions every month. Leaving these patients without a much-needed treatment wasn’t something I was willing to do.”
Whether a psychedelic ceremony or healing session can be safely carried out amid the virus depends on how effectively social distancing guidelines are upheld, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Practitioners would need to make sure that participants were spaced apart, that there was no smoke being blown into the air, and that no utensils were being shared.
“The other problem with ceremonies is that sometimes the emotionality of the ceremony is such that people might become cavalier in some of their precautions, which is why it’s important to have a mediator who’s able to enforce that level of non-exchange,” he adds.
For this reason and others, some have made the choice to play it safe and cease operations until the pandemic is over. Dimitri Mugianis, who facilitates iboga retreats through his company Iboga Revolution, finds it concerning that some have continued holding plant medicine ceremonies during the pandemic. “You’re talking about really close quarters,” he says. “Often, you have to touch someone to comfort them. They’re not aware of normal boundaries, and some people are vomiting. And the reality is, it’s not an emergency situation.”
Mugianis says his business has been down 70 percent since he’s canceled ceremonies. To compensate, he’s been running an online version of his Psychedelic Disintegration group, where people discuss their experiences with psychedelics, and counseling people regarding their psychedelic and addiction recovery experiences over the phone.
Tricia Eastman, whose company Psychedelic Journeys organizes psychedelic retreats, made a similar decision to halt retreats and focus on counseling work that can be done remotely. She was concerned that participants could either spread the virus to one another or have to miss the retreats if they got sick.
The fact that Eastman’s retreats require travel also would have complicated matters and increased risk. “It really doesn’t make sense to have people going through airports when things are very stressful. It’s not a good energy,” she says. “We want the experience to be as comfortable as possible because you’re going to do hard work with yourself.”
While many psychedelic therapy and ceremony providers’ businesses have taken a hit, the pandemic has also forced people to innovate in ways that can help people long after it’s over. Virtual ceremonies, remote psychedelic therapy sessions, and online integration groups have opened up the potential to make these services available to people all over the world who might not otherwise access them.
Eastman, in fact, believes this is an opportunity to exercise the attitude of surrender that psychedelics teach us, and we will come out better on the other side. “This is a time of global reset,” she explains. “This is a time where we kind of already are in a plant medicine journey. This is an initiation. It has a lot of the same qualities that you would experience in terms of the different things that are being purged out of the collective and the inner reflection that is happening by shutting down the planet and having to sit and be with yourself. I’m just listening to what I feel is the trajectory that we’re on, and I really have learned from this work that when you trust, you don’t resist whatever is happening and how that wants to happen.”