The Zendo Project
Sara Gael is the definition of an angel. When you’re at a festival and a psychedelic experience gets too weird or scary—as they tend to do from time to time—Sara and the Zendo Project are there to comfort you. Zendo is the beacon of light when someone’s trip plummets into dark places, and Sara’s soothing, perfectly-pitched voice is soul-centering, reaching out to you like the voice of Gaia herself as she comforts you in the palm of her hand, reminding you that it’s all going to be okay. When you’re having a bad trip, it can be the only thing that keeps your psyche hanging on to your third eye.
Sara Gael is the Harm Reduction Coordinator at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Co-Founder of the Zendo Project, a “psychedelic first aid for festivals and events.” She has an MA in Counseling Psychology from Naropa University and a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies from the University of Hawaii, followed by years of experience as a therapist and counselor. Sara is what I think of when I hear the term “Life Coach.”
The Zendo Project is a peer-to-peer support group that looks to bring harm reduction to festivals and events where psychedelic drugs (and drugs in general) might be used by those in attendance. Zendo’s goal is to ease a difficult drug experience a person may be having, and creates a safe space that alleviates fear—the key ingredient for numerous bad psychedelic trips. “We talk people through [bad trips], not down,” Sara emphasizes. “At Zendo, we create a culture where we take care of each other, allow difficult experiences and be there to hold space for those experiences, rather than push them away. When that kind of environment is created, people feel safer whether they are taking psychedelic drugs or not.”
But that’s not always easy here in America, thanks to former Vice President Joe Biden, who, back in 2002, helped push through The RAVE Act: “A bill to prohibit an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance . . .” Since the RAVE Act took effect, concert and festival promoters discouraged groups like the Zendo Project and Dance Safe at their events. Promoters could be fined $250,000—or worse, shut down entirely—if such groups were permitted on the premises.
Luckily, the tides are turning. Thanks to larger festivals such as Burning Man, Lightning In A Bottle and Envision Festival, promoters are seeing the immense benefits of having harm reduction groups present at their events. Not only do promoters see the benefits, law enforcement and emergency response teams have noted the extensive positive effects as well. As one Burning Man volunteer put it, “If [Zendo Project] weren’t present, we’d have an uncomfortable situation escalate into a bad situation before you could mumble whatever ‘safe word’ you may have.” Essentially, the Zendo Project prevents hospitalization and arrests for those that may have ended up there otherwise.
The War on Drugs has failed us. It has failed us as a society, as a country and as a planet. People are going to use substances, and psychedelics will continue to be the drug of choice for those looking to expand their psyche. It’s been a part of our earthling culture since the first stoned ape chomped down on psilocybin mushrooms while hunting and gathering. The least we can do now is give psychonauts a place to feel safe when the whole universe is big-bangin’ in their brains. “It’s the responsible thing for us to do as humans, as a community, as festival culture, to provide psychedelic harm reduction and psychological first aid,” Gael reminds us.
You can trip like Ram Dass or you can trip like Hunter S. Thompson, but try and make your festival experience a pleasurable one. It’s all a state of mind, and you get to choose your own adventure. Just remember that when the adventure gets too mentally strenuous, walk, wander or crawl over to the Zendo Project. Those angels will help guide you back to the brighter side of life.