The wilderness effect

Naropa profs talk eco-psychedelics and the future of psilocybin therapy in Colorado

Psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms Golden Teacher on mycelium block, close-up. Psilocybe Cubensis raw mushrooms isolated on white background. Micro-dosing concept.

Rumor has it, some of the students in Robert Greenway’s wilderness experiences at Sonoma State University in the late ’60s and early ’70s used psychedelics.

Drugs weren’t part of Greenway’s pedagogy — his goal was to guide students in reconnecting to nature. 

On the remote treks, students found themselves first excited about the adventure, then frustrated, and, finally, 72 hours in, liberated from human demands and connected to nature: “The wilderness effect.”

These treks paved the way for what became known as ecopsychology.

Travis Cox is the chair of the ecopsychology department at Naropa University in Boulder.

“It’s trying to overcome the perceived disconnections that we have in our lives,” explains Travis Cox, chair of the ecopsychology department at Naropa University. “From our authentic selves, from other human beings, from the [natural] world and from God or ‘the source’ or whatever anybody believes is ‘the ultimate.’” 

Cox and his colleagues at Naropa believe psychedelics can expedite our reconnections, maybe even shift our collective worldview enough to pull us back from the brink of catastrophic climate change. Michal “Miki” Fire and Azul DelGrasso will join Cox in a workshop at the Psychedelic Science conference this June in Denver, talking about “ecopsychedelics” and nature-based therapeutic practices.

Cox and DelGrasso express hope that Colorado’s emerging psychedelic-assisted therapy program — set to roll out state-regulated psilocybin treatment late in 2024, with similar programs for DMT, ibogaine and mescaline able to roll out in 2026 — will incorporate ecopsychology. The model sees our separation from the natural world as a cause for much of our psychological dysfunction and environmental destruction.

DelGrasso is a Naropa grad who studied under Cox in the ecopsychology department. He’s currently working on a dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies looking at 5-MeO-DMT, which DelGrasso believes “can reframe our social and ecological lens in a time of global crises.” 

Azul DelGrass will help co-facilitate a workshop on ecopsychdelics at the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver in June.

“There’s a lot of healing that needs to take place,”he says. “I’m a strong believer that we can expedite that healing, not only our reconnection to nature, but also our reconnection to one another, by allowing ourselves to be deeper in the natural world.”

A 2016 study showed that psychedelics create new communication pathways, more strongly connecting the sensory cortices, which process sensations like sight and taste, to the frontal parietal network, which gives us our sense of self.

Many ancient medicine ceremonies occur outside, at least partially, and many involve groups, which is why DelGrasso and Cox say Colorado must include Indigenous voices throughout development of its psychedelic-assisted therapy treatment program.

“Have we learned our lesson from the way cannabis was rolled out?” Cox wonders, referring to Colorado’s slow action to level the retail-cannabis playing field for people of color, who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. “From the people who I’ve talked to, there’s still hope for that possibility [with Colorado’s psychedelic-assisted therapy program].” 

DelGrasso says MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has done “an excellent job” developing an assisted-therapy model that benefits both the individual and the group. 

“For example, with 5-MeO-DMT in a group setting, it’s not everyone taking the medicine at once,” he explains. “People are holding space for the individual who is going through the experience — the group is witnessing their experience, which sometimes can be cathartic. … After the ceremony or the session is complete, what is most important is integration.”

Processing what was discovered during the psychedelic experience requires “a support system,” DelGrasso says, of family, friends and therapists, not simply repeated psychedelic-assisted treatments.

“It can take months, if not years, for people to truly integrate a single ceremonial experience,” DelGrasso says. “Folks who fight the integration piece are the people I see returning constantly to ceremony. They’re kind of doing this spiritual trespassing, or bypassing, and they’re relying on the experience to change the trauma, to change the behavior, whereas the medicine, the psychedelic, is there to show you the door. Once it opens the door for you, integration is going through the door.”

DelGrasso reminds that psychedelics are “only a tool” and “not for everybody.” As a long time social worker, he views psychedelic work through an intake lens: “It’s really getting to know who is in the community, what are their needs, what are the traumas, lived and ancestral, and determine if psychedelics is the right avenue.”