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Salubrious psychedelics on Mt. Palomar

A plant-based retreat with the Agape Ayahuasca Sanctuary

Bowl of magic mushrooms.
Bowl of magic mushrooms.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to take part in a ceremonial psychedelic experience, you had to pay a pretty penny: a flight to Costa Rica or Peru, and then a journey into the jungle to a remote retreat center. Failing that, you had to be lucky enough to know somebody who knew somebody who knew about something closer to home. But people have a way of responding to felt need, and between the state of the world today — global pandemic, local wars with global significance, a mainstream media that survives and thrives on your fear — and a rising skepticism about the unadulterated goodness of the Western pharmaceutical industry, it’s no wonder that people feel anxious and depressed, and no wonder that plant-medicine retreat centers are sprouting up all over the world — including here. And not the secret kind that require special connections, but the commercial kind you can find via Google.

Case in point: last spring, life led me to search for “Ayahuasca San Diego.” My first results advertised ayahuasca retreats in Mexico and other places that were not San Diego. But as I continued to scroll, I came across the Agape Ayahuasca Sanctuary: the first public plant medicine sanctuary in the county. A legal, all-inclusive sort of place that has attracted a remarkably diverse clientele, ranging from their twenties to their seventies.

Pausing a moment: ayahuasca? Agape? Let’s start with the first one: Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic brew that is mixed from two Amazonian plants: the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves from the chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis). The psychoactive chemical in the combo is DMT (dimethyltryptamine). When the two plants are ingested together, the enzymes that break down the DMT become blocked, leaving it free to dance the night away along the brain’s serotonin receptors. “Agape,” meanwhile, is taken from a Greek word signifying the purest, most disinterested form of love.

The Agape website offers retreats with psilocybin mushroom, Bufo alvarius — (5-MeO-DMT) also known as the “God Molecule” — and, in the future, ayahuasca. The center also offers private ceremonies, in case you don’t feel comfortable getting a little weird with a dozen people you met only a few hours earlier. I joined the email list and didn’t think about it again until a couple of months later, when I received an email from Agape with information about an upcoming psilocybin mushroom/Bufo blended retreat (the Bufo was optional at an additional cost). I didn’t think much of it at first. I wanted ayahuasca, and didn’t feel like I needed a mushroom trip.

But after giving the matter more thought, I decided that maybe a psilocybin retreat in a ceremonial setting would be a good way of getting a sense of the scene — the setting and environment surrounding my eventual ayahuasca retreat. Also, the retreat was going to be held the weekend before my July birthday, and it seemed like a fitting gift to myself. I bought a reservation and geared up — or, to put the matter in more retreat-friendly terms, I “felt the calling” and made the spiritual investment. Costs vary, depending on which retreat you choose. Ayahuasca and mushroom retreats range between $1000 to $2000. Then the Bufo alvarius mini one-day retreats are between $400 and $1000. (Bufo has also been blended into mushroom retreats.)

Agape facilitators preparing for ceremony.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies ayahuasca (because of its active ingredient DMT) and psilocybin as “Schedule I” drugs. So how is all this legal? According to the Agape website, “The organization is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Supreme Court. The Sanctuary is a registered non-profit faith-based organization, which means the government cannot interfere with a sincere religious practice, even if it conflicts with current drug laws.” What’s more, the people at Agape do not require you to convert or even have faith of any kind to participate. You just join them for the ceremony, and you don’t have to worry about a DEA SWAT team busting in with machine guns while you’re in a deep hallucinatory state.

Participants are given checklist of things to bring: a couple sets of loose and comfortable white clothing, blankets, quiet water bottle, flashlight, pillow, towel, closed-toe shoes, sweatshirt, one sheet, shower flip-flops, wristwatch, bug spray, hat, sunscreen, swimsuit, yoga mat, eye-mask, and small objects with sentimental value. Basically we’re going to summer camp, but for adults intent on blasting off into the ether. So maybe it’s more like space camp.

In addition to the checklist, there is a preparation guide for the weeks leading up to the retreat. The guide asks you to reduce your intake of recreational drugs and alcohol — however, cannabis is ok. Also, to eat clean, reduce caffeine consumption, reduce screen time, try to sleep well, avoid scary movies and any media that makes you feel fear, anger, dread, or hopelessness. Additionally, it asks that you put in extra effort toward being kind and caring to people in your life. Meditation and introspective journaling are also recommended. So no, you don’t have to convert, but it’s also not a drug bash dressed up in flowy clothes.

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When the day arrives, I stop at the Wal-Mart on Broadway in Chula Vista to pick up the last few items I need on the checklist. Cheap wrist watch, good. A blue flowery yoga mat, in the cart. Just need the eye-mask for the ceremonies. I search all over the store, even ask store workers to point me in the right direction, but can’t find an eye-mask anywhere. And trying to navigate through that Wal-Mart on a summer Friday before the weekend is like trying to get through Calcutta during Diwali. If I was going to avoid feelings of anger and hopelessness, I had to get the hell out of there. Forget the eye-mask. I’ll figure it out later. Hopefully they’ll have an extra at the retreat. I’ll just cover my face with a T-shirt if I have to. Just get me out of this Wal-Mart and the entangled city before I lose my shit!

The container is the safe-space where the ceremony takes place. It is the structure that holds a participant’s physical, psychological, and spiritual components intact. A good container is crucial to the experience.

I make it out of the store and the lot and jet up the I-5 to the I-15, then over and up a craggy, winding mountain road on Palomar Mountain to the property where the retreat is being held. All retreats are located within a two-hour radius of San Diego; locations vary depending on the season, size of the group, and the particular type of retreat being crafted. Once you are signed up to attend, you are given the details and location.

Check-in time is between 3 and 5 pm; I arrive around 4:30. I’m not late, but I feel late, as it looks like I’m one of the last participants to roll in. I realize that I left the city with a load of stress and carried it with me up the mountain. I am looking forward to laying my burden down during the retreat.

The instructions say that after you arrive, you should take everything from your car, lock it, leave your things on top of or next to your car, and walk down to the back side of the lodge, where there’s a big deck with a view. That’s check-in. I do as the instructions say, except I do not lock my car. It is in plain view, so I can keep an eye on it if I need to. A woman equipped with long brown wavy hair, beads, and Greek goddess features walks by as I make my way to the lodge. She introduces herself as Neekol, a facilitator, and points me in the direction I need to go. The facilitators are here to offer support and guidance. I find that each one brings a unique quality to the retreat, from food preparation to music to yoga instruction. Neekol has a knack for connecting with people immediately, she says. I don’t argue.

The deck sports a ridiculous view from its heavenly altitude. Our feet are safely on the ground, but we’re standing above the clouds. The towns below look like tiny civilizations upon which we may gaze and about which we may wonder on this perfect sunflower day. After taking in the bucolic scene, I find a table of people gathered on the deck. Then a friendly, salt-and-pepper-stubble-filled face offers me a glass of organic watermelon juice as I sit with the others. The face belongs to Eddie Bartlett, organizer and founder of Agape Sanctuary. He has me fill out the necessary forms, basically agreeing that I won’t sue and they’re not going to be held responsible if there’s any sort of incident. Basic Terms and Agreement forms, you might say. “We are not in any way medical professionals,” Bartlett makes clear. I dive right into it all without much hesitation. I’m committed to the experience.

After check-in, I mingle with some of the other participants on the deck as we wait for our yoga class to begin. What kind of people am I going to encounter? People’s reasons for coming to a retreat like this vary. For many, it’s a general curiosity. Some go to kick serious addictions. Others may hope to work through psychological trauma that pharmaceuticals and therapists haven’t been able to fix. “We endeavor to remind you that the best healer is Dr. YOU,” says Bartlett. “Nobody else knows your thoughts, emotions, and habits as well as you do. Thus, nobody can understand the root of your disease like you can. As you become empowered to self-heal, and adjust your habits, YOU become the medicine. The sacraments we offer are our allies and teachers. Our purpose is to create a safe and loving container that supports your unique and direct experience with these sacraments.”

Once everybody is checked in — a process that includes surrendering our phones and keys until the end of the weekend — the twelve participants, myself included, find our lodging for the weekend. At this particular retreat, there are three options: you can bring your own tent and find a place to pitch it on the 67-acre property, you can stay in a bunkhouse, or you can pony up a little bit extra and comfortably crash in one of the glamp tents. I choose the bunkhouse, which is located down a dirt trail next to the outdoor showers.

Eddie Bartlett, organizer and founder of Agape Sanctuary: “Nobody else knows your thoughts, emotions, and habits as well as you do. Thus, nobody can understand the root of your disease like you can. As you become empowered to self-heal, and adjust your habits, YOU become the medicine.”

The first activity of the retreat is a yoga session, intended to loosen us up and get the blood flowing before the first ceremony later that evening. After moving some tables, we set up our yoga mats on the deck with the holy shit view. The hour-long class is led by a certified yoga instructor who makes sure our physical bodies are grounded and centered before accepting the psilocybin sacrament. “These powerful classes offer valuable tools that you can lean on for support during your journey, such as breath and somatic movement,” Bartlett informs us. Once we finish up with the yoga session, we have an hour to kill before the ceremony begins.

The ceremony is the main event of the evening, the reason we are all there, the moment of truth for those seeking enlightenment for radical life changes. “From what I’ve experienced personally in the ceremonies I’ve sat and served in, there is a magic that happens that is unlike any other,” says local author and Agape facilitator Michael Grimes, who published the book High on Being this past fall. “It’s almost ineffable. It’s something to experience yourself. One of the many beauties to these ceremonies is that it doesn’t matter where you are on your personal journey, the medicine will give you exactly what you need. There might not be one secret cure to our struggles as humanity, but the sacred ceremony is hands down the best solution I’ve found.”

He continues: “There’s a lot of talk these days about the magical plants of nature. You can read stories of media propaganda with whatever perspective you want to find. Some say they can solve all our world’s problems, others claim they can make you crazy. I’ve never seen them make someone crazy, but I have seen them solve people’s problems.”

Back at the bunkhouse, I start to unpack. That’s when I remember I failed to bring an eye-mask, which is an important item for the ceremony. I have a mini panic-attack, then go back to the lodge to ask the facilitators if there are any extras. “I’ll look around,” says yoga instructor Kat. “Or maybe you can go ask Eddie if he has one.” I’m going to be the only idiot tripping balls in front of strangers with a T-shirt wrapped around my head, I think to myself. And I can’t find Eddie. He’s busy getting things ready for the ceremony.

I make my way back to the bunkhouse without an eye-mask. Another participant is already dressed in his ceremonial whites — and hiding under a blanket in his bunk. He’s deep in his nerves, it seems, so I quietly grab some of my things and exit the space. After a quick shower and some moments to myself, I don my loose white clothing and start to make my way up the dirt hill to the container.

Sean, a professional hydroflight rider, tells me: “Life just felt super special after the retreat. It was hard to describe. I was more appreciative and felt thankful. I would catch myself admiring certain things I always overlooked before — like the way certain flowers and trees would blow in the wind around my house and the beauty and life it provided to the world around it.”

The container is the safe-space where the ceremony takes place. It is the structure that holds a participant’s physical, psychological, and spiritual components intact. A good container is crucial to the experience. Tonight, our container is a large forest green yurt, located near the lodge. The participants begin to gather outside. Despite my lack of mask, I’m pretty relaxed, and overall, I’m excited for the experience. Many of the other participants look like they feel the same way. Very few seem nervous, with the exception of my bunkhouse mate, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Popeye’s bearded nemesis Bluto.

As we prepare to enter the container, I see Eddie materialize from his bus. He approaches and hands me a brand new, still-in-the-box eye-mask before stationing himself near the entrance of the container with a bucket of warm water and a sponge. No more worries; I’m fully equipped. In Christ-like fashion, Eddie washes the feet of the participants as they enter the sacred space. Inside the container are twelve mats laid out in a circle, each bearing a participant’s name. Lined up like tiny tombstones at the foot of each mat are white plastic trash buckets, in the event of any vomiting or “purging” (which is more common in ayahuasca ceremonies).

I find my mat, set my water bottle and flashlight down beside me, and get comfortable. On one side of me is Agape facilitator Vin, and on the other, a middle-aged professional medical writer I met earlier. He gives off cool surfer vibes. At the head of the ceremony are the seven facilitators, four men and three women, creating a distinct balance of masculine and feminine energies.

Once the psilocybin mushroom sacrament is brought in, the container is closed and the ceremony is set into motion. I’m the first participant to receive a cup, and must decide how much I want to consume. A heroic dose of psilocybin is typically five grams, and if there is ever a time and place to take that much, this is it. I decide to take just four grams initially, but I go back up for a two -gram booster later in the ceremony. The sacrament is crushed up into powder form and put into a mug filled with warm cocoa. The taste is sweet, but not too sweet, and I drink it all down with ease. Then I lay back on my mat, pull my eye-mask down, and prepare for blast off.

The live medicine music (Icaros) — administered by the Agape music maestro — begins to permeate the closed container. Icaros are sacred medicine songs that bring energy to help with healing. The sacred songs are repetitive and flock with power as they transcend. They are flexible and fluid. They carry weight and, when shared, are to be treated with respect and reverence. “The music is the backbone of the ceremony,” says the maestro. “It’s the thread that holds the ceremony together.”

The hour-long class is led by a certified yoga instructor who makes sure our physical bodies are grounded and centered before accepting the psilocybin sacrament.

Things begin to feel different as the Icaros shift with the energies of the ceremony. I hear whimpers, people moving around, giggles… What’s going on around me, I can only imagine. I could lift the veil that is my eye-mask, but that would only ruin the film my imagination is carving out in my head. As the music changes, the energy adjusts with it. Upbeat tempos have me dancing on my mat, even as I’m lying down. I’m in it. There’s no turning back. Embrace and let go. The thoughts in my soupy mind compile and then fly in every direction. Faint visuals start to take effect.

When the ceremony ends, about five hours later, many of us file out from the container to gather around a fire burning outside and celebrate the evening. Guitars and rice shakers are handed out to participants, who are encouraged to join the music. Grown men joyfully play on the ground, making angels in the dirt. My nervous bunkhouse mate is now smiling ear to ear, chowing down on a piece of bread and slurping soup. We’re all children at this point. Chilly, squirting plums are handed out to everybody for post-ceremony nourishment. Eventually, the evening fizzles out and everyone wanders into the darkness, back to their sleeping quarters.

The next morning, I find Eddie in the container and return the eye-mask he gave me. I need it no more. What remains is the final, and maybe most important, element of the retreat: the integration circle. Integration is the process of taking what you learned from the sacrament during ceremony and bringing it back into your normal life. The Agape music maestro maintains that 20 percent of a heavy psychedelic experience is ceremony and 80 percent is integration.

It’s Sunday morning; the entire group of participants and facilitators congregates back on the lodge deck for a delectable vegan breakfast prepared by Agape facilitator Melissa. Following breakfast, the integration workshop kicks off; this is meant to help us figure out what methods might help with our personal integration. It could be anything from journaling, exercise, meditation practice, or speaking to a therapist about the experience. It’s all a part of “doing the work” — a common phrase in the psychedelic healing community that’s becoming almost cliche. But as Jack Kerouac writes in Big Sur, “Cliches are truisms and all truisms are true.” Agape facilitator Vin might agree; integration, he says, is “the biggest part, in my opinion. That’s when the work gets done. That’s when the realizations happen.”

Icaros are sacred medicine songs that bring energy to help with healing. The sacred songs are repetitive and flock with power as they transcend. They are flexible and fluid. They carry weight and, when shared, are to be treated with respect and reverence.

And the work goes on, via post-retreat check-ins. “We’re starting a weekly Zoom call for members who have come to retreats where basically we share our integration,” says Bartlett. “A lot of people who have been to our retreats are asking about doing something like that, but it’s a little tricky finding a good place, what with people coming down from LA and people flying in from all over. That’s why a weekly Zoom call makes sense to me. We’ll also be doing in-person events in due time.” Some integration activities the group offers consist of sharing stories of personal spiritual healing, guided meditation, guided journaling, guest speakers, and music.

Proper integration is what was missing from my previous psychedelic experiences. I used to just jump right back into the hustle, thinking I was good: “I ate the magic fungus medicine. The cobwebs in my head are cleared out and I’m cured for a few months.” Or so I would tell myself. This time, I’m more intentional, and in the months following the mushroom ceremony, I find my integration is going well. Almost too well. Many important and positive things begin to bloom. Between a job promotion and working on passion projects, I feel unstoppable. My ego starts to inflate with all the good stuff happening, I can feel it. Trying to keep that bastard in check can be tricky. I know it’s time to start planning my next ego beatdown. It’s time for the Bufo journey.

A participant painted this for the group.

Bufo is a venom that comes from the Sonoran Desert toad. This toad secretes “Bufotoxin” from its glands as a defense mechanism. When this milky substance is dried, it can be smoked from a vaporizer — and take you to the center of the universe. This type of DMT is known to be the most powerful psychedelic on the planet. I once heard Mike Tyson say on a YouTube video that his experience with Bufo brought him back in time to meet the very first him. If this stuff can tame Mike Tyson’s ego, then I’m positive it will knock mine out with a light jab.

I think back to a nurse who joined me on the mushroom retreat. When I asked if she would consider trying ayahuasca, she answered: “When I feel called I will try ayahuasca. I think mushrooms are a great way to start a plant medicine journey. However, I feel like Bufo has prepared me more for ayahuasca — it made me completely surrender. The Bufo experience was life-changing for me. For the first time, instead of fearing death and dying, I felt like if I died, everything would be fine. Life would go on, and my children and husband would continue to thrive. Before, the thought of death, and seeing people dying — trauma I experienced being a nurse in the hospital — made me anxious.”

It’s November now. Four months since the mushroom experience. I get an email telling me that Agape is hosting a one-day Bufo retreat that costs $444. This is my chance to go deeper. Later in the day, I decide that I’m going to do it. I fish my phone from my pocket to sign up and notice the time is 4:44PM. Funny coincidence. Then a few days later, a friend posts a picture of glowing angels surrounding the number 444 on her Instagram story. I start asking questions about this mysterious number. She tells me it means I’m being guided by angels. I’m still a little skeptical, but okay: buckle up, here we go again. The angels are calling for me to do the most powerful psychedelic known to man. If they say so...

I arrive at the property (a different site than the mushroom retreat) and see a familiar face as I park: a woman named Madeline from the mushroom retreat. She is a sixty-year-old former teacher and HR executive, and as it happens, I had asked her about her experience after the mushrooms. Her reply: “I am relatively new to entheogens. I’m very curious about every aspect of my existence. Agape, and the sacraments the retreats offer, have been vital to my spiritual growth. I’m a humanist with a deep respect for science, but I wanted to explore aspects of my consciousness that are not readily available to me. I explored the chemical and neurological foundations of psychotropic entheogens and felt very strongly that the mechanisms they catalyze in my material neurological being would give insight to the essence of my mind. I sought out a safe environment, and the Agape group was the most trustworthy in set and setting. Although there were negative aspects of my experience, they were critical to unfolding deeper levels of trauma and forgiveness and ultimately integrating the experience into a deeper gratitude.”

The author at the retreat. “I realize that I left the city with a load of stress and carried it with me up the mountain. I am looking forward to laying my burden down.”

We walk up the driveway of the large property together. When we ring the doorbell, Eddie answers. “Did you guys come together?” he asks. “Yeah, we’re dating now,” Madeline jokes.

I begin to wander around the property. Heavy rain from the previous day dampens the trails. I spot the Agape music maestro blowing into a didgeridoo, warming up his lungs. There isn’t as much music at this retreat, perhaps because the Bufo ceremony is relatively quick. Instead, the music is there for the different groups to enjoy as we wait for our turn in the container. My group has four people, and we are the last of four groups to go. We have been fasting since the night before. The last thing I ate was a burrito, and I know it’s still swimming somewhere inside me.

Once again, there are blankets and pillows ready for each of the participants inside the container. I notice my stomach starting to cast off some thunderous noises. Uh oh. I’m not sure if it’s growling from almost twenty-four hours of fasting, or if that burrito is finally looking for its way out. It’s pretty common knowledge that when you die, your muscles loosen and your bowels release. And what I’ve heard is that Bufo makes you feel like you do not exist anymore — you have a feeling of death. Now I’m doubly nervous: about the Bufo experience itself, and about whether I will shit my ceremonial white pants after taking it.

When it’s my turn, the thunder is still rolling in my stomach. Eddie approaches with the glass pipe and has me do a few breathing exercises. Then I suck slowly for about twenty to thirty seconds while he torches the DMT toad secretion. “Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Good. Good. Good. Guh. Guh. Guh.” Eddie fades away. I fall back onto my blanket and I’m gone. My ego surrenders almost immediately. It has no choice. Time doesn’t exist. I don’t exist. Wherever I am is infinite. It is a lonely place (through I feel connected to everything) in some milky brown galaxy. Sounds like a candy bar, I know. When I return, about fifteen minutes later, I lie there and try to make sense of what has just happened. I can’t. I didn’t soil myself, but I don’t even care if I did or not. Neekol is on one side of me, writing down the things that participants say while they’re out. “You are ready,” is what I was apparently repeating.

The days following the Bufo retreat, I begin a new integration process. This time, meditation is much simpler to slip into, and epiphanies start popping off like comets. I start a Brazilian jiu-jitsu journey to keep my ego at bay without having to rely completely on powerful psychedelics. Having trained killers trying to rip your ankles and arms off weekly should help. I continue to “do the work,” but I remain well aware that my spiritual pathways will not be this open for long as I sink back into the daily grind.

Since Agape’s first public retreat last July, the group has gone on to host half a dozen psilocybin mushroom and Bufo retreats — many of which have had waiting lists. With the success of the psilocybin and Bufo retreats and a fresh crop from the Ecuadorian jungles, the sanctuary is preparing to host their first ayahuasca retreat this year. The aim for the psychedelic trust is to host one type of retreat per month as they continue to grow like the sagacious plants they serve. Will I attend their first ayahuasca retreat to complete the trifecta? Only if I feel I’m being called.

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Bowl of magic mushrooms.
Bowl of magic mushrooms.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to take part in a ceremonial psychedelic experience, you had to pay a pretty penny: a flight to Costa Rica or Peru, and then a journey into the jungle to a remote retreat center. Failing that, you had to be lucky enough to know somebody who knew somebody who knew about something closer to home. But people have a way of responding to felt need, and between the state of the world today — global pandemic, local wars with global significance, a mainstream media that survives and thrives on your fear — and a rising skepticism about the unadulterated goodness of the Western pharmaceutical industry, it’s no wonder that people feel anxious and depressed, and no wonder that plant-medicine retreat centers are sprouting up all over the world — including here. And not the secret kind that require special connections, but the commercial kind you can find via Google.

Case in point: last spring, life led me to search for “Ayahuasca San Diego.” My first results advertised ayahuasca retreats in Mexico and other places that were not San Diego. But as I continued to scroll, I came across the Agape Ayahuasca Sanctuary: the first public plant medicine sanctuary in the county. A legal, all-inclusive sort of place that has attracted a remarkably diverse clientele, ranging from their twenties to their seventies.

Pausing a moment: ayahuasca? Agape? Let’s start with the first one: Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic brew that is mixed from two Amazonian plants: the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves from the chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis). The psychoactive chemical in the combo is DMT (dimethyltryptamine). When the two plants are ingested together, the enzymes that break down the DMT become blocked, leaving it free to dance the night away along the brain’s serotonin receptors. “Agape,” meanwhile, is taken from a Greek word signifying the purest, most disinterested form of love.

The Agape website offers retreats with psilocybin mushroom, Bufo alvarius — (5-MeO-DMT) also known as the “God Molecule” — and, in the future, ayahuasca. The center also offers private ceremonies, in case you don’t feel comfortable getting a little weird with a dozen people you met only a few hours earlier. I joined the email list and didn’t think about it again until a couple of months later, when I received an email from Agape with information about an upcoming psilocybin mushroom/Bufo blended retreat (the Bufo was optional at an additional cost). I didn’t think much of it at first. I wanted ayahuasca, and didn’t feel like I needed a mushroom trip.

But after giving the matter more thought, I decided that maybe a psilocybin retreat in a ceremonial setting would be a good way of getting a sense of the scene — the setting and environment surrounding my eventual ayahuasca retreat. Also, the retreat was going to be held the weekend before my July birthday, and it seemed like a fitting gift to myself. I bought a reservation and geared up — or, to put the matter in more retreat-friendly terms, I “felt the calling” and made the spiritual investment. Costs vary, depending on which retreat you choose. Ayahuasca and mushroom retreats range between $1000 to $2000. Then the Bufo alvarius mini one-day retreats are between $400 and $1000. (Bufo has also been blended into mushroom retreats.)

Agape facilitators preparing for ceremony.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies ayahuasca (because of its active ingredient DMT) and psilocybin as “Schedule I” drugs. So how is all this legal? According to the Agape website, “The organization is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Supreme Court. The Sanctuary is a registered non-profit faith-based organization, which means the government cannot interfere with a sincere religious practice, even if it conflicts with current drug laws.” What’s more, the people at Agape do not require you to convert or even have faith of any kind to participate. You just join them for the ceremony, and you don’t have to worry about a DEA SWAT team busting in with machine guns while you’re in a deep hallucinatory state.

Participants are given checklist of things to bring: a couple sets of loose and comfortable white clothing, blankets, quiet water bottle, flashlight, pillow, towel, closed-toe shoes, sweatshirt, one sheet, shower flip-flops, wristwatch, bug spray, hat, sunscreen, swimsuit, yoga mat, eye-mask, and small objects with sentimental value. Basically we’re going to summer camp, but for adults intent on blasting off into the ether. So maybe it’s more like space camp.

In addition to the checklist, there is a preparation guide for the weeks leading up to the retreat. The guide asks you to reduce your intake of recreational drugs and alcohol — however, cannabis is ok. Also, to eat clean, reduce caffeine consumption, reduce screen time, try to sleep well, avoid scary movies and any media that makes you feel fear, anger, dread, or hopelessness. Additionally, it asks that you put in extra effort toward being kind and caring to people in your life. Meditation and introspective journaling are also recommended. So no, you don’t have to convert, but it’s also not a drug bash dressed up in flowy clothes.

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When the day arrives, I stop at the Wal-Mart on Broadway in Chula Vista to pick up the last few items I need on the checklist. Cheap wrist watch, good. A blue flowery yoga mat, in the cart. Just need the eye-mask for the ceremonies. I search all over the store, even ask store workers to point me in the right direction, but can’t find an eye-mask anywhere. And trying to navigate through that Wal-Mart on a summer Friday before the weekend is like trying to get through Calcutta during Diwali. If I was going to avoid feelings of anger and hopelessness, I had to get the hell out of there. Forget the eye-mask. I’ll figure it out later. Hopefully they’ll have an extra at the retreat. I’ll just cover my face with a T-shirt if I have to. Just get me out of this Wal-Mart and the entangled city before I lose my shit!

The container is the safe-space where the ceremony takes place. It is the structure that holds a participant’s physical, psychological, and spiritual components intact. A good container is crucial to the experience.

I make it out of the store and the lot and jet up the I-5 to the I-15, then over and up a craggy, winding mountain road on Palomar Mountain to the property where the retreat is being held. All retreats are located within a two-hour radius of San Diego; locations vary depending on the season, size of the group, and the particular type of retreat being crafted. Once you are signed up to attend, you are given the details and location.

Check-in time is between 3 and 5 pm; I arrive around 4:30. I’m not late, but I feel late, as it looks like I’m one of the last participants to roll in. I realize that I left the city with a load of stress and carried it with me up the mountain. I am looking forward to laying my burden down during the retreat.

The instructions say that after you arrive, you should take everything from your car, lock it, leave your things on top of or next to your car, and walk down to the back side of the lodge, where there’s a big deck with a view. That’s check-in. I do as the instructions say, except I do not lock my car. It is in plain view, so I can keep an eye on it if I need to. A woman equipped with long brown wavy hair, beads, and Greek goddess features walks by as I make my way to the lodge. She introduces herself as Neekol, a facilitator, and points me in the direction I need to go. The facilitators are here to offer support and guidance. I find that each one brings a unique quality to the retreat, from food preparation to music to yoga instruction. Neekol has a knack for connecting with people immediately, she says. I don’t argue.

The deck sports a ridiculous view from its heavenly altitude. Our feet are safely on the ground, but we’re standing above the clouds. The towns below look like tiny civilizations upon which we may gaze and about which we may wonder on this perfect sunflower day. After taking in the bucolic scene, I find a table of people gathered on the deck. Then a friendly, salt-and-pepper-stubble-filled face offers me a glass of organic watermelon juice as I sit with the others. The face belongs to Eddie Bartlett, organizer and founder of Agape Sanctuary. He has me fill out the necessary forms, basically agreeing that I won’t sue and they’re not going to be held responsible if there’s any sort of incident. Basic Terms and Agreement forms, you might say. “We are not in any way medical professionals,” Bartlett makes clear. I dive right into it all without much hesitation. I’m committed to the experience.

After check-in, I mingle with some of the other participants on the deck as we wait for our yoga class to begin. What kind of people am I going to encounter? People’s reasons for coming to a retreat like this vary. For many, it’s a general curiosity. Some go to kick serious addictions. Others may hope to work through psychological trauma that pharmaceuticals and therapists haven’t been able to fix. “We endeavor to remind you that the best healer is Dr. YOU,” says Bartlett. “Nobody else knows your thoughts, emotions, and habits as well as you do. Thus, nobody can understand the root of your disease like you can. As you become empowered to self-heal, and adjust your habits, YOU become the medicine. The sacraments we offer are our allies and teachers. Our purpose is to create a safe and loving container that supports your unique and direct experience with these sacraments.”

Once everybody is checked in — a process that includes surrendering our phones and keys until the end of the weekend — the twelve participants, myself included, find our lodging for the weekend. At this particular retreat, there are three options: you can bring your own tent and find a place to pitch it on the 67-acre property, you can stay in a bunkhouse, or you can pony up a little bit extra and comfortably crash in one of the glamp tents. I choose the bunkhouse, which is located down a dirt trail next to the outdoor showers.

Eddie Bartlett, organizer and founder of Agape Sanctuary: “Nobody else knows your thoughts, emotions, and habits as well as you do. Thus, nobody can understand the root of your disease like you can. As you become empowered to self-heal, and adjust your habits, YOU become the medicine.”

The first activity of the retreat is a yoga session, intended to loosen us up and get the blood flowing before the first ceremony later that evening. After moving some tables, we set up our yoga mats on the deck with the holy shit view. The hour-long class is led by a certified yoga instructor who makes sure our physical bodies are grounded and centered before accepting the psilocybin sacrament. “These powerful classes offer valuable tools that you can lean on for support during your journey, such as breath and somatic movement,” Bartlett informs us. Once we finish up with the yoga session, we have an hour to kill before the ceremony begins.

The ceremony is the main event of the evening, the reason we are all there, the moment of truth for those seeking enlightenment for radical life changes. “From what I’ve experienced personally in the ceremonies I’ve sat and served in, there is a magic that happens that is unlike any other,” says local author and Agape facilitator Michael Grimes, who published the book High on Being this past fall. “It’s almost ineffable. It’s something to experience yourself. One of the many beauties to these ceremonies is that it doesn’t matter where you are on your personal journey, the medicine will give you exactly what you need. There might not be one secret cure to our struggles as humanity, but the sacred ceremony is hands down the best solution I’ve found.”

He continues: “There’s a lot of talk these days about the magical plants of nature. You can read stories of media propaganda with whatever perspective you want to find. Some say they can solve all our world’s problems, others claim they can make you crazy. I’ve never seen them make someone crazy, but I have seen them solve people’s problems.”

Back at the bunkhouse, I start to unpack. That’s when I remember I failed to bring an eye-mask, which is an important item for the ceremony. I have a mini panic-attack, then go back to the lodge to ask the facilitators if there are any extras. “I’ll look around,” says yoga instructor Kat. “Or maybe you can go ask Eddie if he has one.” I’m going to be the only idiot tripping balls in front of strangers with a T-shirt wrapped around my head, I think to myself. And I can’t find Eddie. He’s busy getting things ready for the ceremony.

I make my way back to the bunkhouse without an eye-mask. Another participant is already dressed in his ceremonial whites — and hiding under a blanket in his bunk. He’s deep in his nerves, it seems, so I quietly grab some of my things and exit the space. After a quick shower and some moments to myself, I don my loose white clothing and start to make my way up the dirt hill to the container.

Sean, a professional hydroflight rider, tells me: “Life just felt super special after the retreat. It was hard to describe. I was more appreciative and felt thankful. I would catch myself admiring certain things I always overlooked before — like the way certain flowers and trees would blow in the wind around my house and the beauty and life it provided to the world around it.”

The container is the safe-space where the ceremony takes place. It is the structure that holds a participant’s physical, psychological, and spiritual components intact. A good container is crucial to the experience. Tonight, our container is a large forest green yurt, located near the lodge. The participants begin to gather outside. Despite my lack of mask, I’m pretty relaxed, and overall, I’m excited for the experience. Many of the other participants look like they feel the same way. Very few seem nervous, with the exception of my bunkhouse mate, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Popeye’s bearded nemesis Bluto.

As we prepare to enter the container, I see Eddie materialize from his bus. He approaches and hands me a brand new, still-in-the-box eye-mask before stationing himself near the entrance of the container with a bucket of warm water and a sponge. No more worries; I’m fully equipped. In Christ-like fashion, Eddie washes the feet of the participants as they enter the sacred space. Inside the container are twelve mats laid out in a circle, each bearing a participant’s name. Lined up like tiny tombstones at the foot of each mat are white plastic trash buckets, in the event of any vomiting or “purging” (which is more common in ayahuasca ceremonies).

I find my mat, set my water bottle and flashlight down beside me, and get comfortable. On one side of me is Agape facilitator Vin, and on the other, a middle-aged professional medical writer I met earlier. He gives off cool surfer vibes. At the head of the ceremony are the seven facilitators, four men and three women, creating a distinct balance of masculine and feminine energies.

Once the psilocybin mushroom sacrament is brought in, the container is closed and the ceremony is set into motion. I’m the first participant to receive a cup, and must decide how much I want to consume. A heroic dose of psilocybin is typically five grams, and if there is ever a time and place to take that much, this is it. I decide to take just four grams initially, but I go back up for a two -gram booster later in the ceremony. The sacrament is crushed up into powder form and put into a mug filled with warm cocoa. The taste is sweet, but not too sweet, and I drink it all down with ease. Then I lay back on my mat, pull my eye-mask down, and prepare for blast off.

The live medicine music (Icaros) — administered by the Agape music maestro — begins to permeate the closed container. Icaros are sacred medicine songs that bring energy to help with healing. The sacred songs are repetitive and flock with power as they transcend. They are flexible and fluid. They carry weight and, when shared, are to be treated with respect and reverence. “The music is the backbone of the ceremony,” says the maestro. “It’s the thread that holds the ceremony together.”

The hour-long class is led by a certified yoga instructor who makes sure our physical bodies are grounded and centered before accepting the psilocybin sacrament.

Things begin to feel different as the Icaros shift with the energies of the ceremony. I hear whimpers, people moving around, giggles… What’s going on around me, I can only imagine. I could lift the veil that is my eye-mask, but that would only ruin the film my imagination is carving out in my head. As the music changes, the energy adjusts with it. Upbeat tempos have me dancing on my mat, even as I’m lying down. I’m in it. There’s no turning back. Embrace and let go. The thoughts in my soupy mind compile and then fly in every direction. Faint visuals start to take effect.

When the ceremony ends, about five hours later, many of us file out from the container to gather around a fire burning outside and celebrate the evening. Guitars and rice shakers are handed out to participants, who are encouraged to join the music. Grown men joyfully play on the ground, making angels in the dirt. My nervous bunkhouse mate is now smiling ear to ear, chowing down on a piece of bread and slurping soup. We’re all children at this point. Chilly, squirting plums are handed out to everybody for post-ceremony nourishment. Eventually, the evening fizzles out and everyone wanders into the darkness, back to their sleeping quarters.

The next morning, I find Eddie in the container and return the eye-mask he gave me. I need it no more. What remains is the final, and maybe most important, element of the retreat: the integration circle. Integration is the process of taking what you learned from the sacrament during ceremony and bringing it back into your normal life. The Agape music maestro maintains that 20 percent of a heavy psychedelic experience is ceremony and 80 percent is integration.

It’s Sunday morning; the entire group of participants and facilitators congregates back on the lodge deck for a delectable vegan breakfast prepared by Agape facilitator Melissa. Following breakfast, the integration workshop kicks off; this is meant to help us figure out what methods might help with our personal integration. It could be anything from journaling, exercise, meditation practice, or speaking to a therapist about the experience. It’s all a part of “doing the work” — a common phrase in the psychedelic healing community that’s becoming almost cliche. But as Jack Kerouac writes in Big Sur, “Cliches are truisms and all truisms are true.” Agape facilitator Vin might agree; integration, he says, is “the biggest part, in my opinion. That’s when the work gets done. That’s when the realizations happen.”

Icaros are sacred medicine songs that bring energy to help with healing. The sacred songs are repetitive and flock with power as they transcend. They are flexible and fluid. They carry weight and, when shared, are to be treated with respect and reverence.

And the work goes on, via post-retreat check-ins. “We’re starting a weekly Zoom call for members who have come to retreats where basically we share our integration,” says Bartlett. “A lot of people who have been to our retreats are asking about doing something like that, but it’s a little tricky finding a good place, what with people coming down from LA and people flying in from all over. That’s why a weekly Zoom call makes sense to me. We’ll also be doing in-person events in due time.” Some integration activities the group offers consist of sharing stories of personal spiritual healing, guided meditation, guided journaling, guest speakers, and music.

Proper integration is what was missing from my previous psychedelic experiences. I used to just jump right back into the hustle, thinking I was good: “I ate the magic fungus medicine. The cobwebs in my head are cleared out and I’m cured for a few months.” Or so I would tell myself. This time, I’m more intentional, and in the months following the mushroom ceremony, I find my integration is going well. Almost too well. Many important and positive things begin to bloom. Between a job promotion and working on passion projects, I feel unstoppable. My ego starts to inflate with all the good stuff happening, I can feel it. Trying to keep that bastard in check can be tricky. I know it’s time to start planning my next ego beatdown. It’s time for the Bufo journey.

A participant painted this for the group.

Bufo is a venom that comes from the Sonoran Desert toad. This toad secretes “Bufotoxin” from its glands as a defense mechanism. When this milky substance is dried, it can be smoked from a vaporizer — and take you to the center of the universe. This type of DMT is known to be the most powerful psychedelic on the planet. I once heard Mike Tyson say on a YouTube video that his experience with Bufo brought him back in time to meet the very first him. If this stuff can tame Mike Tyson’s ego, then I’m positive it will knock mine out with a light jab.

I think back to a nurse who joined me on the mushroom retreat. When I asked if she would consider trying ayahuasca, she answered: “When I feel called I will try ayahuasca. I think mushrooms are a great way to start a plant medicine journey. However, I feel like Bufo has prepared me more for ayahuasca — it made me completely surrender. The Bufo experience was life-changing for me. For the first time, instead of fearing death and dying, I felt like if I died, everything would be fine. Life would go on, and my children and husband would continue to thrive. Before, the thought of death, and seeing people dying — trauma I experienced being a nurse in the hospital — made me anxious.”

It’s November now. Four months since the mushroom experience. I get an email telling me that Agape is hosting a one-day Bufo retreat that costs $444. This is my chance to go deeper. Later in the day, I decide that I’m going to do it. I fish my phone from my pocket to sign up and notice the time is 4:44PM. Funny coincidence. Then a few days later, a friend posts a picture of glowing angels surrounding the number 444 on her Instagram story. I start asking questions about this mysterious number. She tells me it means I’m being guided by angels. I’m still a little skeptical, but okay: buckle up, here we go again. The angels are calling for me to do the most powerful psychedelic known to man. If they say so...

I arrive at the property (a different site than the mushroom retreat) and see a familiar face as I park: a woman named Madeline from the mushroom retreat. She is a sixty-year-old former teacher and HR executive, and as it happens, I had asked her about her experience after the mushrooms. Her reply: “I am relatively new to entheogens. I’m very curious about every aspect of my existence. Agape, and the sacraments the retreats offer, have been vital to my spiritual growth. I’m a humanist with a deep respect for science, but I wanted to explore aspects of my consciousness that are not readily available to me. I explored the chemical and neurological foundations of psychotropic entheogens and felt very strongly that the mechanisms they catalyze in my material neurological being would give insight to the essence of my mind. I sought out a safe environment, and the Agape group was the most trustworthy in set and setting. Although there were negative aspects of my experience, they were critical to unfolding deeper levels of trauma and forgiveness and ultimately integrating the experience into a deeper gratitude.”

The author at the retreat. “I realize that I left the city with a load of stress and carried it with me up the mountain. I am looking forward to laying my burden down.”

We walk up the driveway of the large property together. When we ring the doorbell, Eddie answers. “Did you guys come together?” he asks. “Yeah, we’re dating now,” Madeline jokes.

I begin to wander around the property. Heavy rain from the previous day dampens the trails. I spot the Agape music maestro blowing into a didgeridoo, warming up his lungs. There isn’t as much music at this retreat, perhaps because the Bufo ceremony is relatively quick. Instead, the music is there for the different groups to enjoy as we wait for our turn in the container. My group has four people, and we are the last of four groups to go. We have been fasting since the night before. The last thing I ate was a burrito, and I know it’s still swimming somewhere inside me.

Once again, there are blankets and pillows ready for each of the participants inside the container. I notice my stomach starting to cast off some thunderous noises. Uh oh. I’m not sure if it’s growling from almost twenty-four hours of fasting, or if that burrito is finally looking for its way out. It’s pretty common knowledge that when you die, your muscles loosen and your bowels release. And what I’ve heard is that Bufo makes you feel like you do not exist anymore — you have a feeling of death. Now I’m doubly nervous: about the Bufo experience itself, and about whether I will shit my ceremonial white pants after taking it.

When it’s my turn, the thunder is still rolling in my stomach. Eddie approaches with the glass pipe and has me do a few breathing exercises. Then I suck slowly for about twenty to thirty seconds while he torches the DMT toad secretion. “Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Good. Good. Good. Guh. Guh. Guh.” Eddie fades away. I fall back onto my blanket and I’m gone. My ego surrenders almost immediately. It has no choice. Time doesn’t exist. I don’t exist. Wherever I am is infinite. It is a lonely place (through I feel connected to everything) in some milky brown galaxy. Sounds like a candy bar, I know. When I return, about fifteen minutes later, I lie there and try to make sense of what has just happened. I can’t. I didn’t soil myself, but I don’t even care if I did or not. Neekol is on one side of me, writing down the things that participants say while they’re out. “You are ready,” is what I was apparently repeating.

The days following the Bufo retreat, I begin a new integration process. This time, meditation is much simpler to slip into, and epiphanies start popping off like comets. I start a Brazilian jiu-jitsu journey to keep my ego at bay without having to rely completely on powerful psychedelics. Having trained killers trying to rip your ankles and arms off weekly should help. I continue to “do the work,” but I remain well aware that my spiritual pathways will not be this open for long as I sink back into the daily grind.

Since Agape’s first public retreat last July, the group has gone on to host half a dozen psilocybin mushroom and Bufo retreats — many of which have had waiting lists. With the success of the psilocybin and Bufo retreats and a fresh crop from the Ecuadorian jungles, the sanctuary is preparing to host their first ayahuasca retreat this year. The aim for the psychedelic trust is to host one type of retreat per month as they continue to grow like the sagacious plants they serve. Will I attend their first ayahuasca retreat to complete the trifecta? Only if I feel I’m being called.

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