The young man I’m sitting with has been expressing a thought loop for over an hour, maybe two. Suddenly, he bolts upright. He’s just concluded that his need to take control aggressively of every unpredictable situation he confronts stems from a deep seated fear of death. The loop is over.
The young woman I’m sitting with has been talking in circles for thirty minutes. I can’t understand what she’s getting at, until she starts talking about her father’s death, and it becomes clear to me that the common thread tying all of her statements together is her desire to recapture things, feelings, and people she has lost.
The young man I’m sitting with bursts into tears. It’s the first time he’s really been able to grieve for his best friend, who died of an opioid overdose this past year. Through his tears, he wonders aloud if his friend could have conquered opioid addiction if they had taken acid at this festival together. I say nothing, but I suspect that it’s possible.
It takes more than an LSD trip to heal the deep spiritual wound that gives rise to addiction. But for many people, an LSD trip (or any other kind of psychedelic trip) is the first significant step on the road to healing: healing from trauma, healing from grief, healing from anxiety and fear. And that is why I sit. That is why I held space for these young people, and all the other festival goers who come to the Harmonia Sanctuary.
The Harmonia Sanctuary is a beautiful place. It’s not just my opinion. Most of our guests comment on how enticing our space is. The large Sanctuary tent is well lit (especially compared to the rest of the festival grounds at night). The floor is soft and giving, but if you want to come inside, you have to take your shoes off. The octagonal space is lined with pillows, cushions, and blankets, so that our guests can make themselves as comfortable as they desire. In the corner, there’s a box of books, art supplies, and bubble wands. Opposite the entrance of the sanctuary, we have created an altar laden with gemstones, sea shells, sage smudge sticks, and an assortment of other small, beautiful objects. And most importantly, there is always somebody – multiple somebodies, in fact – to talk to here.
Most of us who volunteer at the Harmonia Sanctuary are not trained therapists. All that separates us from the other festival attendees is our compassion, our awareness, our capacity to listen, and our desire to hold space. And frankly, that’s all we need. We’re not here to give advice or provide therapy. We’re not here to guide anybody’s experience. We’re not here to say the magic words that fix everything. That’s not how holding space works. There’s no instant fix for a difficult psychedelic experience, or any other emotional crisis that may arise in someone’s life. What there is, though, is an awareness of suffering: the great universal constant that so many of us are perpetually squirming away from, even though none of us can ever really truly escape it. What suffering needs, more than anything else, is acknowledgement and a listening ear. And so, the other Harmonia volunteers and I listen.
Many of the people who come to our Sanctuary are not in immediate need. They’re not panicking. They don’t need somebody to hold their hand. They might not even be on any drugs. They just want a comfortable place to sit down and friendly people who can talk with them and be with them, without judgment. They talk about their lives, the struggles they are going through, and the things that make them smile. Sometimes they stay with us for hours. Even though there is nothing urgent happening, I am still certain that they are healing with us.
The young man I’m sitting with leaps up and hugs me. It’s not a casual ‘bro hug.’ He’s clenching me tightly, and vibrating with emotion. All night he’s been asking me if he’s a burden to me. I tell him that he isn’t. I tell him that my job is to listen to people exactly like him. He is astonished, and though he doesn’t say it, I know that he is astonished because (out there in the “real” world) nobody listens to his pain. Hardly anybody in his life patiently holds space for him the way I am holding space for him tonight. And in the space I am holding for him, his deepest feelings and oldest wounds come to the surface. The plaintive call of his suffering has finally been answered. And now he can heal.
Harmonia is a paradox. People come to music festivals and take drugs to escape reality for a weekend, and yet, in our Sanctuary, they come face-to-face with the most real parts of themselves. Drug use is also a paradox. Those who take drugs are often doing so for multiple reasons, but often there is some inner conflict about one’s intentions. Unfortunately, unintended harm can happen all too often. On the other hand (and particularly in the case of psychedelics), sometimes it’s personal growth and healing that wins out.
I’m not a doctor or a therapist or a scientist. It’s not my part to tell anybody to take drugs or not to take drugs. That’s not at all what harm reduction is about. I do not wish to stir up controversy, and as much as I’d love to sit here and tell everyone about the healing potential of psychedelics, I’m just not an expert (I’ll leave that to MAPS, the Beckley Foundation, the Heffter Institute, or any number of other leaders in the area). I can’t explain how psychedelics heal, or what has gone wrong when they don’t. But, I can’t deny what I’ve seen with my own eyes and felt with my own heart.
Harmonia and the organizations that have inspired us (DanceSafe and the Zendo Project) are about much more than providing people with assistance when their good times take a turn for the worse. We also exist to provide models of compassion for those who come into our care, to remind them that the world is not always a cold and heartless place, and that all it takes for things to get better is the dedication, love, and patience to make it so.
There’s a group of young people standing outside the entrance to the Harmonia Sanctuary. They don’t want to take off their shoes or put out their cigarettes, so they stay there at the entrance. But they’re curious, and they ask us what it is that we’re doing here. We tell them, and their eyes go wide. They are genuinely surprised that we have driven hours and hours, and spent all day to assemble this Sanctuary just to listen to and care for complete strangers for a weekend. They are astonished to learn that where most people see the worst day of someone’s life, we sitters see a possible turning point towards connection and healing, the first day of someone’s new life. Overcome with emotion, they ask me if they can give us all hugs. I accept mine and smile.