Psychedelic Perspectives: The Zendo Project’s Sarah Gael on the Psychedelic Movement’s “Vast Potential” — and its Limits
Esalen Team
April 12, 2021

Sarah Gael is a harm reduction officer at Zendo Project, a program sponsored by MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). She started working with MAPS in 2012, coordinating peer-to-peer psychedelic harm reduction services at festivals and events worldwide with Zendo Project before serving as director of harm reduction at MAPS from 2017 to 2020. Sarah is a therapist for MAPS’ clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in Boulder and she also maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, integration, non-ordinary states of consciousness, and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. 

Gael joined Voices of Esalen’s Sam Stern recently to talk about her work in peer-to-peer psychedelic therapy, recent developments in the decriminalization movement, and more. Read on for some high notes from their conversation, and then tune in to Voices of Esalen this Friday, April 16, 2021, to listen to the full episode on Spotify, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

“We're in the middle of this huge psychedelic Renaissance,” Gael began, before going on to paint a compelling picture of the bright future that could be just around the corner for therapeutic psychedelics: “Every day there's more and more information coming out around the potential benefits of psychedelics and therapy and healing, and also a widespread decriminalization movement here in the U.S. really starting to change the landscape of psychedelic substances.”

And the shift goes far beyond the recreational — Gael thinks the increasing acceptance of psychedelics has “vast potential” to affect many aspects of modern life.

1. Potential to revolutionize psychotherapy.

“One of the things that we see in therapy that can be so challenging is the unconscious resistance to looking at [difficult] things, because it's understandable: We experienced traumatic events in our lives, it's painful to go back and feel those emotions and have those memories, and so it's understandable that we disconnect or try to push those things away. One of the things that psychedelics have the potential to do in the right setting is to really help people move past that — to be able to access some of these repressed feelings, thoughts, and memories, and to be able to start to learn from their past and be able to integrate those experiences into their lives so that they're no longer operating from a trauma standpoint... but are able to integrate their past experiences so that they can move forward.”

2. Establish a model of peer-to-peer support to fill in the gaps of mental healthcare.

“I really see that the work that we've been doing with the Zendo project has always been about being able to take what we've learned at festivals [like Burning Man] and take it out into society....

COVID has amplified so many things in our society that need healing. It's amplified inequity, it's amplified societal issues, the failures of our medical system, of our mental health system, of our political system. And we're starting to see through the veil of all of these different systems that are really built upon paradigms that are crumbling right now: Old paradigms of colonialist, patriarchal frameworks that are now really just coming apart at the seams. One of those systems is the mental health system, and we’re seeing its failures. I think it's going to be really important for alternative models of emotional support, like peer support, to be able to be available to people.

There are situations in times where what people need is therapy and professional therapy support, and then I think there's a huge gap where people could just use some emotional support from their peers. I think that we'll start to see peer support really step in to fill that role in the coming years.”

3. An aid to social justice reform.

“One of the things that people can at times become aware of when they're in a psychedelic state is our interconnection and the awareness that there's this thread that connects us all. And I think that if you just stop there and don't actually do the work to integrate those realizations into actual on-the-ground work to dismantle systems of oppression, systems of racism — it's lazy. And it is ineffective. And it's important for us to recognize that these systems of oppression they have influenced, they have been embedded within the framework of the psychedelic movement, just as they're embedded within the framework of all aspects of society right now.

I think what people are waking up to and starting to become aware of within the psychedelic movement is that it has been very white. It has been very disproportionately focused on white people. And we — especially because MAPS focuses on trauma and the healing of trauma and treating trauma, and we know that trauma affects communities of color at a disproportionate level — we can't ethically treat trauma without also ensuring that we are making sure that we are focused on accessibility and making sure that we are getting this care and this treatment out to everyone.”

Intrigued by what you’re reading? Tune into the Voices of Esalen podcast this Friday to hear our full conversation with Gael, and subscribe to the podcast to hear more conversations like these! If you’d like to dig even deeper into psychedelic medicine and learn more first-hand, check out Entheowheel: The Ceremony and Science of Psilocybin – An Educational Workshop and Experiential Event.


Esalen Team