The vibe at the ketamine ceremony is more business casual than Burning Man. Of the 20 or so people gathered at the airy loft in New York City, there’s an even split of women and men, most of them white, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. They all look professional, like they could be minor characters on Succession, with their quarter-zip sweaters and Prada sweatpants.
Everyone has congregated for “an evening of self-discovery.” Which means five hours of sound healing, breathwork, Qigong, guided meditation, acupuncture, and intention setting. But the most anticipated part of the evening is the ketamine journey.
When the time arrives to partake, it’s dark outside. There’s some small talk as everyone settles onto plastic sleep mats arranged in a circle; to the side of each one is a journal, a face mask, and 400 ml of ketamine in the form of a pink lozenge.
One participant, Lisa Evia, a blonde-haired, 48-year-old venture capitalist, was in town from Chicago and had some previous experience with ketamine. She’d come away from prior experiences that altered some of her personal relationships, like with her mother, for the better. That evening, as she placed the lozenge on her tongue, she had a different set of intentions: She wanted to be a different kind of leader at work. Someone more compassionate, less intense. How could she bring empathy and connectivity into leadership?
That many in the room have work on their mind makes sense. The workplace is in crisis, with employee malaise hovering like a cloud over everyone’s cubicles. It’s even spawned movements: Quiet Quitting. The Great Resignation. The Anti-Ambition Era. At one point, there was something about a “quitagion.” Which speaking of, an estimated 25 million people left their jobs at the end of 2021; about 50 million quit in 2022. Unconvinced that traditional solutions can help, some business leaders are looking for the type of wide-open thinking that psychedelic substances can provide.
Psychedelics slipped into our collective consciousness as of late through the mainstream. Perhaps it began with Michael Pollan’s bestseller How to Change Your Mind about the benefits of psychedelics or when psilocybin retreats were covered by everyone from Anderson Cooper to Goop or when mushroom-laced chocolates began popping up in Insta ads. Whatever it was, somewhere along the way, psychedelics began to be seen as not quite a drug, but as something more powerful—a kind of ritualized path to understanding oneself in a deeper way; a gateway to thinking and seeing things differently.
But psychedelics aren’t new. Indigenous communities have found incredible healing and connection to plant medicine long before Western culture came around to them (even if only after criminalizing the substances, which disproportionately affected people of color). What is new is a demographic of people who are psychedelic-curious: business leaders.
“For executives, when you’re under a lot of pressure, you can pass down your feelings of anxiety, fear, and frustration to your employees,” says Sandra Statz, 47, the founder and CEO of A.P. Chem, a skincare line, and one of the ketamine ceremony participants. “I don’t think it’s always about being more creative. Rather, it’s about being less risk averse and more open-minded—maybe even more daring with the strategy and tactics you wouldn't otherwise have the confidence to pursue to help you achieve your business goals.”
A certain progressive slice of the corporate world, especially the tech-y type, has always been obsessed with psychedelics. Steve Jobs said that taking LSD was a “profound experience” and had a professional breakthrough while on it around creating great things instead of merely making money. More recently, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps have started to offer their employees the benefit of ketamine-assisted therapy.
The idea that psychedelics can not just heal the corporate crowd but open them up to new ideas and maximize their potential has trickled into more conservative business spaces, too. Last year, at the World Economic Forum's annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, Energia Holdings Incorporated, a venture capital firm that invests in alternative health companies, hosted a “medical psychedelic series” guiding executives through, “sessions curated to engage all six senses and give an unforgettable heart-opening, mind-stimulating, experience of human connection through sound meditation, breathwork, and conscious leadership workshop.” Some attendees dubbed it The Psychedelic House.
To meet the growing interest, there has been a rise in psychedelic retreats aimed at executives. Some retreats, like the one I attended, last just a few hours and are mostly hosted in big cities. They offer ketamine, which is legal in the United States (although use of it for anxiety, depression, and hopefully for some big professional insights is considered off-label).
Others are more intensive and can last days or weeks, like Beckley Retreats in Jamaica and the Netherlands which offer multi-day programs in a setting where psilocybin is legal. Many of these places offer virtual options, too.
There are also psychedelic coaches. Those with taglines that promise to train “heart-centered leaders for a new era.” Two of the most well-known are Kaia Roman and her business partner Mike Zapolin (he goes by “Zappy”), who led the New York City retreat. Zappy bills himself as “the psychedelic concierge to the stars,” and has worked with well-known actors, athletes, and executive teams from all over Silicon Valley. Their clients come exclusively from word of mouth. “Once we’ve established the ideal approach, which might begin with breathwork or Qigong or a series of ketamine treatments, a client may choose to work with me for weekly coaching support to maximize their experience,” says Roman.
Roman and Zappy trademarked the word “ketatation,” a portmanteau combining ketamine and meditation. “It’s like going into the wilderness for the night to turn your supercomputer on and get back to our original frequency,” says Zappy, who is a former Wall Street guy himself, although with his trademark white sunglasses perched on his bald head, you might never think it.
For those raising their eyebrows, Roman elaborates: “I worked with a group of quantum physicists who wanted to see what breakthroughs they could achieve. Coming out of the ketatation, they were madly taking notes and writing codes.”
It’s worth noting that while the woo-woo is spiritual, it is also scientific. Researchers at the University of Maryland’s school of business are studying the role of psychedelic experiences on executives. And there’s already an ever-growing body of research illuminating the benefits of psychedelic substances in general, including helping with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction. The FDA is expected to approve MDMA for PTSD treatment.
The clients Roman sees are often dealing with those very things. “They’re looking for relief from those symptoms and ketamine provides relief very quickly, so they can nurture peak performance and new insights that they’re trying to come up with,” she says. In that way, executives are able to fix workplace problems because they’ve fixed themselves.
Everyone attending the New York City retreat had all been cleared with a medical intake form and then a call from a Florida-based doctor who prescribed the drug. There’s also an onsite anesthesiologist. Everyone had presumably followed the instructions for the day, which included not using any mind or mood-altering substances; no eating for four hours before the journey; wear comfortable clothes; and start thinking about personal intentions.
People go around the circle introducing themselves. Some ramble about anxiety, feeling stuck. Others say their names and move on. Shyness and a little aversion to saying too much about yourself and your job can be pretty common at these kinds of events, explains Statz, the skincare CEO. “It can feel contradictory to be a leader or an executive while seeking to improve yourself.”
Some participants have done a lot of work with all kinds of psychedelics, others haven’t used any at all. There are feelings of excitement, trepidation, and eagerness. “My intention was to manage my ability to juggle my workload and all the responsibilities that come with having multiple roles, from wife and mother, to business owner,” says Statz. “I wanted to feel calmer, more at ease, and better able to prioritize and accomplish my goals without feeling frenetic or stretched too thin. We put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve, if not excel, at everything we do.” Could a happier boss lead to happier employees? It tracks.
After the stretching of bodies, sound bath, and acupuncture needles were removed from everyone’s scalp and ears, Roman instructured the group to place the pink ketamine lozenge on their tongues, swish it around—but not swallow the foul-tasting liquid (it can cause nausea)—for about 10 minutes as music played. After the time passed, everyone spit the liquid out into a cup, put on eye masks, and set sail.
An hour later, it was over, and the fast was broken with fruit as participants went around the room and shared what happened for them. “People often say that when they communicate with each other as they come out of it, people get insights from one another,” says Roman. “It’s a group consciousness people are tapping into.”
People spoke about feeling confident again, gaining clarity around their lives and careers. A woman said she communicated something psychically to her husband. No one shared any groundbreaking corporate revelations, but many did share that they felt something. Let’s call it a shift. Which maybe is the point. That we’ve all existed in a system and way of doing things for so long it feels impossible to see a way out. But it’s the unburdening from the norm which will ultimately reveal the path to real change. Not rah-rah boardroom speeches or cheap corporate perks.
At least, that’s how it worked for Statz. “After the session, I felt a renewed sense of clarity and purpose,” she says. “When you don’t feel the weight of all the burdens you often put on yourself, you’re able to identify and say to your team: These are your priorities, rather than tasking them with a million things just to check a box.”
This is where I should tell you: I tried it, too. Although my intentions were less corporate restructuring and more work-adjacent.
How to describe the experience? I was coming off a couple of the most busy but satisfying work weeks of my life. I had published a book (Glossy if you’re curious) and had just received news that it made the New York Times Best Seller List. I was open to whatever insights the universe brought me. But in some ways, what I wanted from that night was to get away from work and into my much-neglected personal life.
That’s sort of what I got. As I emerged cold and hungry from the 60 minutes of ketamine-assisted meditation, I scribbled some notes in my journal to remember what I had felt. What I wrote down is entirely embarrassing but I’ll share part of it here anyway: “My main takeaway is that I am a queen on my queen shit and I deserve all the bliss I am feeling right now. People love me and care about me. I can find bliss anywhere when I need it.”
Lisa Evia also had a mild evening, more a deep meditation than any profound psychedelic insight. (When I call Roman a few days later, as she’s driving to San Francisco to a full moon women’s circle, she agreed that the group had an overall mellow reaction, which she attributed to the space; it was lovely, but cavernous, with the echo of street noise not creating ideal conditions to stay focused on the journey.) Still, Evia believes in the power of psychedelics, even if she also has concerns. Her company, SeedFund Capital, invests in cannabis and psychedelic companies that are women-led, but she holds a certain cynicism towards the way the corporate world is cashing in on them, especially for video-supervised at-home use. “I’m not the biggest fan of telemedicine or the direct-to-consumer aspect happening in this space,” she says. “It worries me a little about misuse, though I try to be open minded.” In other words, psychedelics shouldn’t be seen as a business opportunity, but an opportunity to change how you do business—at the office and at home.
There’s also the issue of price. Everyone in that cavernous New York City loft paid $500 per person (offered at a reduced rate) for their mild experience. Similar retreats can go for double or triple that. The longer, out-of-country options can be $4,000, $5,000, $10,000 dollars. So who really has access to these super-charged insights? Who gets the benefits?
And also: What’s the core purpose? If the world of finance and tech and other industries are using psychedelic retreats to ultimately better performance, output, and optimization of their employees, isn’t that missing the point? When you wrap up the sacred ceremony of psychedelics in corporate jargon and goals, the wonder of mushrooms begins to feel more like a line item in a business plan.
That’s what I’m thinking about when Roman sends over a text message she received from a client after the ceremony. “I feel really good today. I am implementing new habits regarding my finances/filing/paperwork/mail/organizing and I feel calm about it as opposed to overwhelmed. I'm always doing creative thinking, but this morning while I was teaching I had so many great ideas running through my head I wanted to stop to jot it all down. Ha!”
Not exactly the kind of enlightenment that seems like it would solve burnout or pay gaps or insert any of the other not-great things we encounter in the workplace. But then again, maybe the solutions aren’t meant to be flick-of-the-switch, but something closer to a process. After all, taking psychedelics is called a journey.
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