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The Aware Project: to re-balance the public narrative

A San Diego hub for psychedelic community and education

Jarrod Ekengren leading an Aware event.
Jarrod Ekengren leading an Aware event.

“I always have many irons in the fire,” Jarrod Ekengren tells me. “I’m not really a single track-minded person.” Some of those irons, in no particular order: Ekengren is a PhD. student in clinical psychology, an Associate Project Manager in San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency working in the field of harm reduction for drug users, a facilitator and participant in various men’s groups, a husband, a surfer, and oh yes, the director of the San Diego branch of the Aware Project. He says that across his varied professional and avocational activities, he has a mission statement that orients him: “To work at the individual, community, and systems levels to reduce human suffering and advance human thriving.” It’s a big statement, but it’s delivered without sanctimony. Ekengren has a warm, easy manner, and seems right away like a person with a genuine interest in others.

When we meet, it is primarily to talk about the last thing on the list above — the Aware Project, which Ekengren started co-leading for San Diego in 2018 before taking over leadership individually two years later. The project was originally founded around eight years ago in Los Angeles, and is, in Ekengren’s words, “an education and advocacy organization, and a community around psychedelics.” He tells me that a large part of its original mission “was to re-balance the public narrative, which would be done by holding these salon-style speaking engagements.” Speakers might be “academic researchers, drug policy experts, artists, shamans, therapists.” These events were opportunities for folks to see “normal, everyday people” with various perspectives on psychedelic experiences and their profound potential for healing, mental health, and spirituality, among other uses, “to bring this into the mainstream in a meaningful way.” The project has also given rise to related groups here in San Diego that run independently — a recovery group for people who have used psychedelics in healing their addictions, and a psychedelic integration circle in which people can talk through their experiences in a safe and supportive environment.

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The mainstreaming of psychedelics has, by many measures, proceeded apace since the creation of the Aware Project: influential books like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, documentaries on Netflix, successful clinical trials and historic research grants, legalization efforts, and an ever-larger groundswell of popular enthusiasm. Every Aware or Aware-adjacent event that Ekengren has been part of evinces that current wave of popularization. In addition to “people who’ve been in the scene for a bit,” he says that at each meeting, 20-50% of the attendees are new people who have read something or heard about something that drew them in.

Ekengren has been with the organization through a difficult period. When he came on board, Aware was doing monthly events. Then bimonthly events. Then it went on hiatus during much of the pandemic. He says that the project’s San Diego branch is now re-emerging, with a few speaking engagements that are not on the calendar quite yet: “One is going to be about psilocybin for phantom limb pain,” and will be presented by a UCSD neuroscientist, perhaps also with an anthropologist. “Another one is a talk on best practices for fitting psychedelics into the Western biomedical paradigm from a doctor and a lawyer involved in that field, involved with the Psychedelic Medicine Association.”

Ekengren also wants to feature more indigenous and under-represented voices, to strengthen the community-building aspects of the project, and to offer educational workshops that run on a different template than the talks have to date. You can keep up with them on their Meetup or Facebook pages and website, awareproject.org.

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Jarrod Ekengren leading an Aware event.
Jarrod Ekengren leading an Aware event.

“I always have many irons in the fire,” Jarrod Ekengren tells me. “I’m not really a single track-minded person.” Some of those irons, in no particular order: Ekengren is a PhD. student in clinical psychology, an Associate Project Manager in San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency working in the field of harm reduction for drug users, a facilitator and participant in various men’s groups, a husband, a surfer, and oh yes, the director of the San Diego branch of the Aware Project. He says that across his varied professional and avocational activities, he has a mission statement that orients him: “To work at the individual, community, and systems levels to reduce human suffering and advance human thriving.” It’s a big statement, but it’s delivered without sanctimony. Ekengren has a warm, easy manner, and seems right away like a person with a genuine interest in others.

When we meet, it is primarily to talk about the last thing on the list above — the Aware Project, which Ekengren started co-leading for San Diego in 2018 before taking over leadership individually two years later. The project was originally founded around eight years ago in Los Angeles, and is, in Ekengren’s words, “an education and advocacy organization, and a community around psychedelics.” He tells me that a large part of its original mission “was to re-balance the public narrative, which would be done by holding these salon-style speaking engagements.” Speakers might be “academic researchers, drug policy experts, artists, shamans, therapists.” These events were opportunities for folks to see “normal, everyday people” with various perspectives on psychedelic experiences and their profound potential for healing, mental health, and spirituality, among other uses, “to bring this into the mainstream in a meaningful way.” The project has also given rise to related groups here in San Diego that run independently — a recovery group for people who have used psychedelics in healing their addictions, and a psychedelic integration circle in which people can talk through their experiences in a safe and supportive environment.

Sponsored
Sponsored

The mainstreaming of psychedelics has, by many measures, proceeded apace since the creation of the Aware Project: influential books like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, documentaries on Netflix, successful clinical trials and historic research grants, legalization efforts, and an ever-larger groundswell of popular enthusiasm. Every Aware or Aware-adjacent event that Ekengren has been part of evinces that current wave of popularization. In addition to “people who’ve been in the scene for a bit,” he says that at each meeting, 20-50% of the attendees are new people who have read something or heard about something that drew them in.

Ekengren has been with the organization through a difficult period. When he came on board, Aware was doing monthly events. Then bimonthly events. Then it went on hiatus during much of the pandemic. He says that the project’s San Diego branch is now re-emerging, with a few speaking engagements that are not on the calendar quite yet: “One is going to be about psilocybin for phantom limb pain,” and will be presented by a UCSD neuroscientist, perhaps also with an anthropologist. “Another one is a talk on best practices for fitting psychedelics into the Western biomedical paradigm from a doctor and a lawyer involved in that field, involved with the Psychedelic Medicine Association.”

Ekengren also wants to feature more indigenous and under-represented voices, to strengthen the community-building aspects of the project, and to offer educational workshops that run on a different template than the talks have to date. You can keep up with them on their Meetup or Facebook pages and website, awareproject.org.

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