I’m regaining my consciousness on the floor of a beachfront compound in Mexico and the first thing I hear is a skinny, bald-headed guy explaining how the psychedelic medicines I just consumed—ayahuasca vine and San Pedro cactus—can change the world. “Imagine if we get someone like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or the people in their families, you know, the one-percent thought leaders, to take these plants,” Michael Zapolin says to me. He then snaps his finger. “The whole paradigm shifts.” As he speaks, cameramen orbit around us, capturing the scene for the pilot of a reality TV show.
Zapolin, 49, is a former dot-com entrepreneur and a New Age author who speaks with the boyish enthusiasm of a college senior. He’s also the leader of the Pyschenauts, a ragtag crew of savants and stoners who believe in the messianic power of psychedelic plants. The team includes a shaman who was once the Vice President of JP Morgan Europe, a cameraman who moonlights as a Spanish voiceover artist for McDonald’s and celebrities like actress Michelle Rodriguez and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra.
The reality show we’re filming, tentatively titled Pyschenauts, is based on the group’s endeavors and already has big-time executive producers attached; namely, David Hurwitz, an executive producer of Fear Factor, and the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated producer Joe Berlinger, who just made Tony Robbins’s Netflix documentary I Am Not Your Guru. Each episode of Pyschenauts follows Zapolin’s team as it whisks away a troubled celebrity or person suffering medical trauma, administers them an intense psychedelic experience and documents their spiritual transformation on video.
In June 2016, I spent three days in Mexico to observe the filming of the pilot episode—aka “the maiden voyage of the Pyschenauts,” as Zapolin had gushed to me months earlier. The pilot’s subject is Ian, a 37-year-old short Jewish guy with the defeated eyes of a captive rabbit. In 1997, Ian got in a car accident the day after his high school graduation. The accident left him with frequent, violent seizures. Two years ago, he was hit by another car while crossing the street. He fell into a 27-day coma and lost his sense of smell. Afterward, Ian became suicidal as six daily psychiatric medicines drained his will to live. Then Zapolin showed up at his mom’s house in Los Angeles and offered to take him to Mexico.
In the 21st century, Western medicine has succumbed to the law of diminishing returns. It’s effective at treating specific ailments like broken bones or infection, but when it comes it comes to intangibles like terminal pain, post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness, medical therapy has become fatally conjoined with a pharmaceutical industry that favors profit over permanent healing. For the most part, the alternative health industry has relied on juice cleanses, plant-based diets, yoga and other cottage health industries.
Only in recent years have groups of scientists accelerated the study of master plants, or plants with naturally occurring psychedelic compounds. Such plants are often held in reverence by cultures that celebrate their miraculous healing and mind-altering properties. Similar to how most ancient cultures speak of an ancient flood, so too do they recall plants that could connect us with a higher power. For indigenous Peruvians, it was the ayahuasca vine. For native North Americans, it’s the San Pedro cactus. These plants are even interlocked in lore. Ayahuasca is seen as the “mother” to the San Pedro cactus’s “father” energy. Psilocybin mushrooms, or “magic mushrooms,” are regarded as the mischievous “kids” of the family. African ibogaine root, known for its hellish intensity, is the “grandfather.”
But in the United States, many master plants contain chemical compounds categorized by the Food and Drug Administration as Schedule I substances, the harshest drug classification that deems them as having no medical value. As cases of opioid addictions, depression and PTSD rise in the United States, however, researchers and scientists are increasingly challenging the FDA’s scheduling as more underground and international studies confirm the therapeutic and non-addictive properties of psychedelics like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Regarding master plants specifically, last year, neuroscientists at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, found that ayahuasca reduced depression in subjects immediately after consumption as well as in the following weeks. In Canada, Mexico and New Zealand, ibogaine root is currently used to treat heroin addiction.
When plant medicines like ayahuasca have been given the camera treatment, they have been sensationalized to the point of disrespect.
On a broader scale, psychedelic evangelists like Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna have asserted that quite possibly, psychedelic plants shaped the course of human history as the source of religious visions. Zapolin, who studies Jewish mystical cabala and co-authored a book with Deepak Chopra on the subject, became interested in master plants after reading the Hebrew Bible. “I was looking at the Book of Exodus around five years ago,” Zapolin recounts. “I was looking at the manna stuff. It says that manna was a small round thing that appears in the morning dew and if you put it in your tent, worms will come out of it and it will stink. I was like, ‘Well that’s what happens with mushrooms.’ And if you carry it over to the Jesus story, where he turned water into wine, according to the Cabalistic oral tradition, he put manna in the pots. And the people who drank it reported that Jesus’s wine was incredible, that they were connected to the angels. So I was like, I gotta call Deepak,” he says, starting to laugh. “He’s gonna tell me I’m nuts, but I had to get it off my chest. So I called him and said, ‘I think that this manna that’s described in the Bible may have been mushrooms.’ And he’s totally silent. He’s like, ‘The reason why this resonates with me is that in my Vedic tradition, there’s the plant soma, which was described as a mystery plant that would connect you to God. According to them it doesn’t exist anymore, but based on our scientific knowledge now, it’s obvious that it was mushrooms’.”
At the end of their discussion, Chopra instructed Zapolin “to take people on this [psychedelic] journey and document it.” Zapolin gathered a motley crew of filmmakers, including his cousin Laurent Levy, a cinematographer. She connected him to Rodriguez, who had been reading about ayahuasca and wanted to try it. After filming interviews with David Lynch, Sri Ravi Shankar and other celebrities on the topic, Zapolin, Rodriguez, and a film crew embarked for Peru to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. They had, what looked like to them, the beginning of a movie.
In the mountains of Peru, every participant—12 in all—experienced something transformative. Rodriguez says that “a burden of the last 20 years” was lifted off her and that ayahuasca helped her come to terms with the death of her Fast and Furious co-star Paul Walker. Last year, footage from the Peruvian trip was turned into a documentary called The Reality of Truth, which is now available to stream online.
“The next step was to serialize it into the best show of all time,” Zapolin tells me with a widening grin. He partnered with Adam Singer, his brother-in-law and a former film distributor who had been on the Peru trip, to executive produce the series. “We all had such a life changing experience in Peru that I realized this is what I have to do,” Singer says. “Maybe my family would think I was nuts, it was definitely higher risk than my previous job, but it was worth it.”
Aside from the unpredictable nature of ayahuasca trips, the greater hump for Zapolin and his filmmakers will be whether the format of reality TV can truly stand up as the best device to set off a worldwide shift in how society views psychedelics. The only social change Keeping Up With the Kardashians inspired has been more white women wanting bigger butts, lips and braids. And when plant medicines like ayahuasca have been given the camera treatment, they have been sensationalized to the point of disrespect. When Chelsea Handler did her well-known segment on ayahuasca in Chelsea Does last year, most of it focused on her bragging about wanting to “get high” and to “show what happens when you get fucked up.” Although Handler later admitted she had a powerful experience, such descriptions insult the native practitioners who have been working with these medicines for millennia as a form of psychological therapy. One wonders if given a reality TV show, the Western world’s casual usage will pervert the plants. After all, last year, New York Magazine already declared “ayahuasca is the new juice cleanse.”
The greater hump will be whether the format of reality TV can stand up as the best device to set off a worldwide shift.
Although half of the team here in Mexico are natives of the country, the shaman, Fabian Pierkowski, is a white German national who likes to offer insight on Western-indigenous dichotomies. One of the most well-known shamans in the West, Pierkowski quit his job as Vice President of Asset Management for JP Morgan Europe in 2008 to pursue shamanism full-time. He holds around 250 ceremonies annually, reaching more than 5,000 people a year.
Pierkowski believes that what makes master plants exciting at this point in history is the possibilities for their application in the Western Hemisphere. “You have these upper class people who want to go to Peru, like Chelsea Handler,” he says in a somewhat condescending tone. “You have to understand: someone might be a seventh-generation shaman in Peru, but they don’t understand the context of a Westerner. With all due respect, they’re less fucked up than we are [in the West]. I say you need to work with someone who understands your context, which is where I come in. There are things you can do in traditional medicine, and there are things you can do in Western medicine, so you have to understand how they work together. They’re based on sacred medicines from thousands of years ago, but I’ve brought them to a standard that’s almost clinical.” As an example, Pierkowski boils his medicines for almost two weeks to remove impurities—far longer than ayahuasca is traditionally prepared, but it eliminates much of the uncomfortable throwing up the vine induces.
It is this new, 21st century fusion of Western standards-of-care traditional medicine, reality television and spiritual experiences that excite evangelists like Pierkowski and Zapolin. “In 20 years, this is going to be what yoga is now,” Zapolin says. It’s hard not to believe him; Zapolin made his fortune by predicting the future value of new technologies. It’s no coincidence that Zapolin’s peers, the risk-and-reward-seeking futurists in Silicon Valley, are some of the plants’ biggest enthusiasts.
After crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and driving south through Tijuana, the Pyschenauts’ enormous red van roars down a Mexican coastal highway, kicking up dust as the Rolling Stones’s “Gimme Shelter” blasts from the stereo. We arrive in the late afternoon at our seaside compound. At sundown, we hold the ayahuasca ceremony. We light candles, sit down on our respective mats, and drink a cup of the bitter ayahuasca vine, which contains psychedelic dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. We stay up all night, breathing, shaking and occasionally puking. In the morning, we down a brew of the San Pedro cactus, which contains psychedelic alkaloid mescaline, also found in peyote.
The sun is in its afternoon descent when the ceremony ends. Ian is walking around gently, balancing on the balls of his bare feet, the dent in his forehead seemingly less angular than before. He sits down in a puddle of sunlight coming from the window and describes in amazement what he had seen the night before: snakes had risen out of the top of his head and seemed to “eat away” his sickness, as a mirror revolved around him and showed him what he needed to work on in his life.” Surprisingly, the plants triggered no seizures and Ian hadn’t taken his anti-seizure pills since leaving Los Angeles.
On the ride back to L.A., Zapolin is careful to clarify what exactly his Pyschenauts movement is. “A Pyschenaut is an explorer of the mind,” he says. “I believe we need a critical mass of people going inside their minds for answers and healing. You can do it through meditation too, but the plants are an easier way to do it. If you believe in God, don’t you think God would have put something in here to help us?”
In the one aberrant case in history in which a society embraced spirituality, Tibet transformed from a country of warriors into a country of monks.
Chopra had a more tempered response. Speaking from his cell phone the day before he visits a 10-day silent retreat, he tells me, “I think [Zapolin] has been a catalyst in bringing about this glimpse of pyschedelics under controlled conditions, opening the door to a larger reality. But I think we have to be very careful that we don’t make pyschedelics the solution and the doorway to all spirituality. I think there are many, many portals to the same goal.
Both Zapolin and Chopra agree that psychedelics are just one way to achieve spirituality, which Chopra defines to me as “getting rid of your conditioning and expanding your awareness.” For the last several hundred years, humanity has accelerated through “isms”—feudalism, capitalism, communism. No political philosophy, however well-intentioned, seems to work out, which is more of a reflection of human nature than whatever ideology it fastens itself to. Confucius writes about a time in which a spirit of public welfare—treating neighbors with respect, taking care of the elderly and being charitable—swept ancient China and rendered government machinations unnecessary. In the one aberrant case in history in which a society totally embraced spirituality, Tibet transformed from a country of warriors into a country of monks overnight. Rather than another political movement, maybe a worldwide spiritual movement hastened by psychedelic plants is in humanity’s future.
The day after Donald Trump is elected president, Zapolin sends me a text reacting to four states legalizing marijuana. “I keep reminding people that what happened for plant medicine yesterday in CA, MA, NV, FL, is so much bigger than whichever candidate you wanted for president,“ he says. "Its ability to expand consciousness at a grassroots level will overcome any leader, and eventuate into women having more equality/respect/admiration. A great day for citizens!”
On January 28, Zapolin and Pat Baker, a plant medicine advocate, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times directed at President Trump, asking him to declare fixing the opiate crisis a "First 100 Days” issue. “Dear President Trump,” it began, “Your legacy and leadership are already significant, but you may not realize how much it could be affected by what you wind up doing, or not doing about the epidemic of opiate and alcohol addiction…All over the Country, our police officers, firefighters, and EMT’s are being overwhelmed with calls related to narcotic overdoses….You have the power to change all of this right now using a natural plant that has been shown for decades to be safe, clinically proven ,and very cost effective. A single dose of the plant medicine Ibogaine has been proven to break the addiction to opiates, cocaine, and alcohol, and is safe when done with proper medical oversight.”
Months after this ayahuasca trip, I give Ian a call. “Zach, I’m literally eating at a restaurant right now,” he tells me in disbelief. “The doctor told me I would never get my sense of smell back. My seizures have gone down. I’ve been able to stop five out of the six medications I was on. My memory is getting better. I think I’ve healed.”
“The real question is how didn’t ayahuasca affect me,” he continues. “I’ve brought five people to ceremonies since, including my brother and my mom. I’m starting to look for what I can do for other people now. I see people suffering and there’s no need for it. For the first time in my life, I have a purpose: I want to bring these healing plants to other people.”