Psychedelic Community in the Social Distancing Era
After nine months of preparation, San Francisco-based event organizer Rachel Ratliff was set to open her Mission District venue, HeartLab, on March 25. Activities planned for opening night included an art show, concert and, perhaps most importantly, cuddles. Hosting platonic cuddle parties has been “the most impactful thing I have done in my life,” says Ratliff, citing cuddling’s ability to relieve pain and emotional stress. However, the opening of HeartLab has been postponed indefinitely due to the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Ratliff, though, has swiftly innovated. In the days since San Francisco’s shelter in place directive went into effect, she has hosted an online ecstatic dance event drawing around 100 participants, as well as a virtual cuddle party, both using the video conferencing platform Zoom. She called her cuddle party the “Can It Be Done? Edition.”
“Connection has been the overarching theme of my life and work,” Ratliff says. “I don’t think we can grow outside of community.” She, like many others in conscious and psychedelic communities throughout the nation, has embraced a bias for action in these times, determined to not lose touch with community despite social distancing. From yoga to dance to breathwork to simply holding conscious space for one another, a kind of virtual mycelial network has sprung up in recent weeks—all online. Getting connected is often a matter of joining a public Facebook group (such as DisDANCING or Our Virtual Wellness Studio) or joining the email list or Facebook group of a psychedelic society to see what kinds of events are happening. While other platforms are being used, Zoom is by far the most popular. While Zoom had approximately 10 million daily users in December, in March that number grew to 200 million.
“New technologies are the things that are helping us be together. If this had happened ten years ago, it would be a totally different situation,” says Josh Meadow, Event Organizer for Consciousness Hacking and Chacruna. Meadow and other organizers of Chacruna’s Psychedelic Liberty Summit, a conference initially scheduled for this April in San Francisco, recently made the decision to move the event online using the platform Crowdcast. Meadow says holding the event online not only opens it up to more of a global audience, but the corresponding lower ticket prices make attending an option for more people, including low-income individuals. “It’s such an equalizer,” he says. Smaller psychedelic societies have moved learning and community gatherings online as well, potentially supporting a kind of digital cross-pollination of ideas and connections. Psychedelic Seminars, an educational conversation series about psychedelics founded by Mike Margolies, recently hosted an online watch party of a recorded interview with Johns Hopkins researcher Bill Richards on Facebook, followed by a Q&A with Richards on Zoom. Colorado’s Nowak Society is hosting a virtual LSD storytelling event.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story said being forced to go digital has opened their events to a wider audience and presented an opportunity to focus more on making offerings rather than selling tickets. David Sauvage, a professional empath in New York City who regularly hosts in-person events, recently facilitated a series of online pop-ups where attendees from all over the world took turns sharing their experiences and listening. Sauvage used a pay-what-you-feel model, telling participants that, “whatever you feel is just right.” Stewart Alsop, San Francisco-based host of the podcast Crazy Wisdom, began live-streaming ten-minute guided breathwork sessions on Facebook and through Zoom in March several times a day in exchange for donations. He says he is committed to continuing this offering “the whole time that the virus will keep us indoors,” which he anticipates will be in waves over the next two years.
“I’d say generosity, compassion, and care are more prevalent right now than capitalism and greed. It feels nice to exercise what it is like to loosen up around obsession with pricing, assume good faith, and see each person and need behind the money,” says Teresa Yung, a San Francisco-based yoga teacher currently quarantining in Tahoe. She adds, “Not to spiritually bypass, as I know there is real hardship in financial needs right now. I myself have had to apply for unemployment and food stamps as all my studios temporarily laid me off.”
During the final savasana of the last in-person yoga class she attended before shelter-in-place took effect, inspiration struck Yung, who went home and reached out to friends who are healers, facilitators, and guides around the globe, envisioning “a place where resources could be gathered and offered on tap to support what our world was about to go through together.” The end result is a Facebook group called Our Virtual Wellness Studio. Since launching March 14, the group has accumulated over 2,000 members and hosts two or three offerings each day in the form of yoga classes, meditations, cacao ceremonies, forest baths, and more.
Online platforms allow for more people to become facilitators and organizers, says Michelle Sun, an event organizer in San Francisco who frequently hosts “authentic relating” community gatherings in her home. (One of her most popular events is called Sad Party—“mainly just for people to be sad together.”) “The ease of setting up a Zoom call without having to have a space makes this thing more democratic,” she says. Since coronavirus took effect, Sun has hosted one public “meditation-slash-relating-slash-dance” event, as well as a couple smaller gatherings for her friend group—though she admits the platform diminishes the collective expression that emerges from being in a literal room together.
In Boulder, Colorado, Melissa Michaels, a body-centered therapist and educator, leads a weekly dance event called Movement Mass, which draws between 150 and 200 participants, most of them regulars. When Colorado banned large gatherings due to coronavirus, Michaels decided to live-stream her weekly dance on YouTube, solo. She might switch to Zoom for future dances. So far, the video of her first remote Movement Mass, which she posted on March 15 has nearly 2,000 views. “It’s not the same as all of us in the room, of course it’s not, but I feel that we will be well served to learn how to do the naked practice—the one where we’re not being infused with loud music and tons of people and all these catalysts that cause us to get a charge and move it. But we’re in a very simple space and it’s down to earth and we’re just doing it,” Michaels says. Virtual dances, in general, are plentiful these days. A newsletter highlighting ecstatic dances around the world is a strong resource.
In the same spirit of honoring the solo practice, Eamon Armstrong, host of the Life Is A Festival podcast, recently broke out of his usual interview-style show to offer a bonus episode, in which he narrates, in real time, his “sacred morning routine,” which he says is one of the biggest contributors to his own positive mental health. He’d been thinking about sharing his routine for a while, as “a gift to my community,” and realized that now is the time. Armstrong also has a Facebook community for podcast listeners where he is posting some virtual events happening during coronavirus lockdown.
Erica Morton Magill, co-owner of Los Angeles Yoga Club, an Ashtanga yoga school where students practice individually in a group setting, has created an online Zoom room where students meet each morning to sit in meditation, chant, and practice together. Despite Ashtanga being an individual practice, Magill felt finding a way to keep the community space was imperative for maintaining accountability and consistency. Through going virtual, she says she discovered “another layer of practice,” in which relying more heavily on the mind-body connection can trigger physical sensations in the body, such as a teacher’s hand offering an assist. “We think, ‘I need to be there together. I need the physical touch.’ Of course that’s valuable, but there’s a way that you can feel a physical experience simply with words and simply with the memory,” Magill says.
Which brings us back to Ratliff’s virtual cuddle party. Could it be done? Not really, it turns out. “There’s no complete substitute for being touched and held and cuddled by someone else,” Ratliff reported after the event. But she isn’t deterred. She says participants found value in the shared vulnerability of seeing everybody cuddled up in their beds, so she’s iterating. Next up? A virtual pajama and story night.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Baltimore Psychedelic Society hosted online watch parties of recorded interviews with leaders in the psychedelic movement, including Bill Richards. The watch parties, called Psychedelic Seminars, were actually founded by Mike Margolies. The story has been edited to reflect this.