Through the Psychedelic Looking Glass

Perception-altering drugs are going mainstream. Could a new movement driven by profit bring more harm than healing?

Through the Psychedelic Looking Glass
An audience listens to NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers talking about psychedelics at the Colorado Convention Center. (Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On a windy Monday last June, I squirreled a vial of MDMA dissolved into liquid LSD, some cannabis-laced gummies and a dozen capsules of finely ground magic mushrooms into an overstuffed roller bag and caught a Lyft to the Portland International Airport, headed for Denver and the largest gathering of psychedelic enthusiasts in the history of humankind.

It was billed as the arrival of the psychedelic renaissance, courtesy of a California nonprofit and lobbying group called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science, or MAPS. The three-day conference came at a time when magic mushrooms, ketamine, ayahuasca, LSD and MDMA had finally landed, like a spaceship on the moon. It promised workshops on psilocybin therapy, neuroscience, and something called “Psychedelic Liberation Training.” There would be seven stages and 400 speakers, including New Age guru Deepak Chopra, star NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and Michael Pollan, the bestselling author whose book and TV series helped market hallucinogens to normie boomers. The conference had all the far-out enthusiasm of the 1960s — but with new, capitalist-fueled credibility. Big Pharma was on board. Republican and Democratic politicians were embracing psychedelics as a remedy for traumatized veterans and the nation’s burgeoning mental health crisis. The movement had gone mainstream.

To someone who has taken hallucinogens on and off for 30 years, the energy felt exhilarating, like we’d entered an entirely new era after a series of depressing and scary ones. Maybe the war on (good) drugs was ending, with legislation pending in a dozen states to legalize psychedelics in some form. I’ve been changed for the better by these drugs. And I was thrilled to see so many people figuring out how to use them to heal from our collective traumas, which often seem tied to the relentless pursuit of profit and the accompanying loss of connection to the natural world and to each other.

But as I settled into a window seat in economy, I couldn’t help but feel a little unnerved about the prospect of joining 12,000 fellow psychonauts who’d each dropped thousands of dollars just for tickets to the conference. What does it mean for this new movement to be powered by the same consumerist system it purports to help us escape? As liberating as it might feel to strut around a major U.S. city carrying drugs with the abandon of a Texan toting an AR-15, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different America is today from the country that gave birth to the starry-eyed ’60s. Even those of us who once shared some utopian hope for the U.S. have largely accepted that capitalism reigns, peace is a farce and humanity may have entered its final chapter. Could there really be a new epoch hiding somewhere in the conference’s sprawling assortment of wonky workshops and soothing sound baths? Or would this movement be overtaken by greedy investors, predatory pseudo-shamans, manipulative “guides” and other shady characters? How many of those searching for psychedelic healing will wind up getting hurt along the way?

For every blissed-out psychedelic revelation I’ve heard about or experienced, there’s a dark one to match it. These powerful substances can leave people paranoid or psychotic, especially if they’re taken without support and guidance. This is in sharp contrast with the way that many Indigenous groups have long used psychedelics in spiritual and communal rituals. In January, the Mazateco tribe released a searing indictment of modern psychedelic use worldwide, calling it “neocolonial” and demanding respect for their traditions: “Our ceremonies are not spectacles, nor are they for commerce or private agencies.”

The psychedelic renaissance often fixates on the real power of psychedelics to heal, while dismissing their equally real propensity to harm. One reason: Big psychedelics means big profits, and there are already huge sums of cash flowing into the industry. Companies developing drugs, other psychedelics-related products and mental health therapies have raised more than $3 billion to date, according to the Financial Times. The number of publicly listed psychedelic companies has grown from one in 2016 to more than 50 today. Some analysts put the industry’s value at $100 billion.

As my 737 bumped its way back to earth on a turbulent brew of Rocky Mountain currents, I wondered: Would this visit to Denver be a good trip or a bad one?

The next morning, I asked the front desk clerk at the Four Seasons in downtown Denver where I might find the Colorado Convention Center. He looked up and smiled at me: “Just look for the big blue bear.” As I walked, perplexed, in the direction he’d pointed, a blue statue of a bear came into view. Four stories high, it leaned provocatively against the convention center, a 577,000-square-foot space that stretched for blocks and could swallow stadiums. The bear thrust its furry posterior toward 14th Street, as if to say, “This way, boys.”

Inside the center’s atrium, hazy sunlight streamed in through towering windows. I picked up a press badge at a table in a hallway, declined the obligatory tote bag and headed to the nearest door, where a few dozen pairs of shoes were piled against a closed-off entrance marked with a sign that promised a “Grof Holotropic Breathwork” session. A stern woman shooed me away for not registering in advance.

As I strolled through the sprawling exhibit halls filled with booths and displays, endless gray ballrooms and the huge Bellco Theater where speakers would soon regale audiences with seminars about somatics and new science, I felt like an outsider, a narc. Yet there was no one to rat out. This whole scene was entirely legal, and nearly everyone who set up a booth or sat on a panel was there to hype something: a mushroom grow kit, a ketamine clinic, a revolutionary light therapy or their personal brand.

The convention’s headline speakers included Jaden Smith (the son of actor Will Smith), Melissa Etheridge and Whole Foods founder John “Wacky” Mackey. To the degree that celebrities are role models, and there was once a risk of public ridicule for admitting to taking psychedelics, it felt significant that so many famous people were willing to share their stories of using them. Still, the main message from these talks was that psychedelics can not only heal you, they can also make you rich and successful. Rodgers, the NFL star, credited a series of South American journeys with ayahuasca, the ancient plant medicine, for his epic 2020 season. “The previous year: 26 touchdowns, four interceptions,” he told a rapt audience. “Ayahuasca: 48 touchdowns, five interceptions, MVP.”

Mackey called psychedelics the source of an epiphany that led him to build his company in its trademark down-to-earth style. “I saw the meaning of life,” he said of his first LSD experience. He skipped over what happened next: The company went public, shed much of its hippie ethos to placate shareholders and then sold to Amazon.

The brand with the most ubiquitous presence at the conference was MAPS, its logo plastered on placards and posters, while people at a massive merch table hawked biographies of its founder, his mug adorning T-shirts that read “Legalize Rick Doblin.”

Doblin has a broad face and a goofy, approachable smile. He grew up in a politically conservative family in Chicago and avoided all types of drugs, even caffeine and alcohol. But in the 1970s, at college in Florida, he tried LSD and mescaline, he said in a 2019 TED Talk, and it changed his life. “Psychedelics gave me this feeling of shared humanity,” he recalled. “I felt that these experiences had the potential to be an antidote — to tribalism, to fundamentalism, to genocide and environmental destruction.”

For centuries, Indigenous peoples around the world, and especially in Central and South America, have used naturally occurring psychedelics such as peyote and mescaline in spiritual ceremonies. LSD was first synthesized in a Swiss lab in the 1930s and entered into popular culture in the West via researchers who aimed to use it and other psychedelics to treat mental health issues as well as expand human consciousness. While some people drew inspiration from observing Indigenous ceremonies, by the 1960s, as these drugs fused with the American counterculture, Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who became the godfather of the psychedelic movement, was promoting them for individual use, famously espousing “turning on, tuning in and dropping out.”

Doblin wanted something else: to plug into the broken system and promote the power of psychedelics to heal it. After college, he studied at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, a holistic education center, under renowned psychedelics researcher Stan Grof. It was there, on the California coast, that he first tried MDMA, a lab-produced psychedelic that is also used in the street drug ecstasy. It gave him “a subtle shift of emotional openness” and “a way of being that I wanted to learn from.” He began working with the drug — then still legal — as a therapist. But in 1984, the government criminalized MDMA as part of the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” to drugs campaign.

The ban made Doblin into an activist. In 1986, he founded MAPS as a small nonprofit that aimed to make MDMA legal for therapeutic use. By that time, hallucinogens had lost much of their popular appeal, which Doblin blamed on a backlash against the “unwise use” that had led to too many cases of people getting hurt — walking into traffic, falling out of windows — when taking these mind-altering substances irresponsibly. By the time MAPS launched in the 1980s, LSD and other hallucinogens had been relegated to the fringe of the drug scene, associated with a kind of hippie extremism.

Throughout the rest of the ’80s and the ’90s, Doblin kept working toward his goal, recruiting donations from people who never lost their faith in the power of “good drugs” to open hearts and minds. MAPS used that money for studies demonstrating MDMA’s effectiveness at treating trauma, then publicized those studies, which in turn helped raise even more cash.

Then came the push to legalize or at least destigmatize nonpharmaceutical drugs, driven, I think, by a variety of factors: the deadly 9/11 attacks and the disastrous wars that followed; the tragedy of so many veterans and civilians addicted to antidepressants and painkillers; and the colossal crash of the U.S. financial system in 2008. People became jaded, suspicious of traditional authority figures and desperate to find new ways to heal. The legalization drive began with cannabis in the mid-2010s and then expanded to psychedelics.

MAPS was ready for this moment. In 2016, having compiled decades of research, Doblin convinced the FDA to authorize large-scale studies on MDMA, which have since shown promising results. Research from groups like the Beckley Foundation into psilocybin (the compound that makes certain mushrooms “magic”) and ketamine (a synthetic drug) have shown potential for treating depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health ailments.

Today, even some of the staunchest squares no longer support crackdowns on psychedelics. The attitude shift crosses parties. Urged on by organizations such as the nonprofit Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry helped shepherd a bill in the state legislature to fund a study of psilocybin for treating PTSD. The Food and Drug Administration has designated both psilocybin and MDMA as “breakthrough therapies,” speeding up the development and review of the drug for treating serious mental health conditions.

Pollan, a progressive folk hero, helped shed the stigma around psilocybin and LSD for the “I don’t do drugs” crowd with his book and Netflix series, “How to Change Your Mind.” In news article after news article, we have learned that plenty of people are experimenting with psychedelics and that you no longer have to be “weird” to do it. Along the way, MAPS began courting the hippies’ historic nemeses: cops, the military and right-wing billionaires like Peter Thiel. Its stated goal: to make the movement more mainstream — and to raise some serious cash along the way.

In 2014, MAPS launched a for-profit subsidiary that researches and develops MDMA for therapeutic treatment. That subsidiary has four times as many employees as the nonprofit arm and could sell the drugs it makes for therapy for much more than MDMA’s $100 per gram street price. Taking into account the costs of training and licensing practitioners and paying for facilities, patients of MDMA therapy could pay as much as $20 per milligram for treatment. MAPS talks about its for-profit endeavor a lot like a pharmaceutical company: Yes, we’re going to start making insane amounts of money by making and selling MDMA, but we’re going to use that money to do good.

In Denver, MAPS’ corporate pivot was evident in the waiver that every conference attendee had to sign when registering. Under the heading “MAPS’ Reputation,” it warned that our invitations could be summarily revoked if the organization, “at its sole discretion,” were to determine that anyone “discredits MAPS or tarnishes its goodwill.” Before I was granted media access by the MAPS communications team, I had to promise that any event during the convention that took place outside its day-to-day schedule would be considered off-the-record — leaving me to wonder whether this included drinks at the bar or after-hours adventures in hallucinogens away from the convention center.

At the end of the first day of the conference, I found myself in an Airbnb decorated with chic modern furniture and smart appliances, where I had an off-label ketamine session. The spot, rented by an experimental tech company whose members were in town for the event, was a 15-minute walk from the convention center; outside, addicts in homeless encampments were smoking and shooting hard drugs. Safely ensconced in the Airbnb, which twinkled with stainless steel and marble, I popped a low-dosage ketamine lozenge and sat down as someone gently placed a mask over my eyes. I spent the next hour feeling detached from my body, free to wander through some of my deepest emotions and oldest memories.

In 1989, when I was 12, my mother moved to Alaska in search of adventure, leaving me feeling abandoned with my manic father in Berkeley, California. I soon discovered alcohol and then moved on to weed. When my older brother said he could score acid, I begged him to hook me up. I was 15 and had no idea what hallucinogens might do to me. I just wanted another escape. My brother came through, and soon I was looking at my first hit of LSD, a square of paper no bigger than the head of a pin.

By the 1990s, Berkeley’s status as the capital of American counterculture was waning. What had started as a psychedelics-fueled movement to end the Vietnam War and maybe all wars — to free us from the stiffs in suits pushing Pleasantville and prosperity — had ended with a sad thud in the 1970s, ushering in a cynical era of American-led geopolitics fueled by a different kind of drug: money. The half-century of collective trauma that followed was rooted in a misguided pursuit of happiness via wealth, with too many Americans convinced that if they just had a little more cash, they’d feel better. Of course, those who successfully gobbled up truckloads of money were still miserable, and most of us didn’t, which could only mean that something was wrong with us. When either having money or not having it failed to cure our existential malaise, we self-medicated with bad drugs: processed foods, opiates, alcohol, Ritalin, Zoloft. When one drug caused a symptom we didn’t like, we added another.

When it was my generation’s turn, my friends and I shunned the kids who wore long hair and bandannas and congregated in Berkeley’s Peace Park. We grew up on 2Pac and The Beastie Boys, not the Grateful Dead. We aspired to be hard. We did drugs because they were fun, not to change the world. Whatever blissful optimism our parents had brought to Berkeley was gone.

My first acid trip was both exhilarating and terrifying. With no one to guide me, I went from giggling uncontrollably to paranoid, creeping and crawling from one urban block to the next, lost on streets I’d known my whole life. Every stranger felt like a threat. Eventually, I found a payphone and called my dad, barely able to communicate where I was. He picked me up without saying a word and took me home.

If I’ve learned anything about drugs in the 30 years since, it’s that they can be transformational, often magical, but also unpredictable, with potential ramifications that sometimes seem permanent. In college, a friend pissed himself during one trip that got too intense and never seemed the same again. My brother, reckoning with major anxiety and depression, pursued drugs aggressively, and one LSD-fueled night wound up strapped to a hospital bed. Three years later, he was homeless. He remained on the streets for the next two decades.

My experiences were different. MDMA taught me to be vulnerable, and on one trip in the stunning Columbia River Gorge, I felt connected to the rest of humanity in ways I’d never experienced, as if I’d shed a layer of cynical skin. That feeling has stayed with me. A few years ago, I started microdosing, taking barely perceptible amounts of mushrooms or LSD at semiregular intervals. Research suggests that this increasingly common way of using drugs can have a therapeutic effect. For me, it’s a reset, a cleaning out of neural cobwebs. Even if the experience ends up uncomfortable in some way, the next day I feel renewed, unbound from the negative storytelling that often rattles around in my head.

I have always credited LSD with teaching me the power of thinking positively, especially during bad trips, which often got so dark that the only way to get through the experience was to wrest control over my mind. But like most people who use psychedelics on their own, I was experimenting. Now that these mind-altering substances are entering the mainstream, millions of people will soon encounter them for the first time. Advocates like Pollan rightly tout the benefits of guided usage and therapy, but the regulatory framework for a legal therapeutic practice is lacking. For now, licenses to become a psilocybin practitioner in my home state of Oregon, for example, are expensive to obtain, and guided sessions with therapists aren’t covered by insurance. The first licensed practitioner in the state charges $3,500 for a single psilocybin treatment. Because there aren’t enough trained professionals employing methods and techniques backed by science, many new users will be on their own, like I was at 15, wandering the streets of Berkeley.

Whether they can articulate it or not, people are desperate for better ways to think and live. That’s why the renaissance is happening now. But if psychedelics in the modern era are less about the counterculture and more about money, what will that mean? Will these drugs heal, free, and enlighten us? Or because this new movement is happening inside a system so many of us believe is broken, will they only bring about new ways to make the rich richer, pacify our pain and patch up soldiers more quickly so that they can return to fight the same wars again and again?

When the ketamine wore off, I pulled off my eye mask. The lights were dim. I called out to see if anyone was around, but no one answered. I got up to discover that I was alone in the Airbnb with a refrigerator full of blueberries and limoncello-flavored LaCroix.

The next day, I returned to the cavernous grounds of the convention center. I roamed from the Deep Space exhibit hall, which housed a giant golden dragon, to the booths hawking grow-your-own mushroom kits, wondering if I’d find anyone spitting out the electric Kool-Aid, or at least talking about the new movement’s potential pitfalls. Supposedly, this was going to be a part of the programming — an exploration of the darker side of the psychedelic renaissance.

But the first skeptical session I tried to attend — about “safety and abuse in psychedelic drugs and foods” — led to a barricade. I hopped over it and saw an escalator, which was dead, so I climbed it to the next floor, only to find the door to the conference room closed. The session had apparently been canceled. Another panel, about “unresolved issues in the psychedelics community,” began with the verbose bios of its four participants and then a prompt from the moderator to spend 3-5 minutes apiece telling a “story,” with no suggestion that the story involved any unresolved issues. That gobbled up most of the rest of the session and left me wondering what “unresolved issues” remained to be discussed.

Later, at the end of a maze of vendor booths, I stumbled on the business lounge, where deals were to be made. Among the couple of dozen people sitting on comfortable couches and munching on free snacks, I met Steve DeAngelo, often called the father of the cannabis industry, in his trademark braids and fedora, sitting next to a Jamaican Rastafarian called Firstman. The pair run psilocybin retreats at a tropical resort near Montego Bay. Firstman, who was overdue for lunch, seemed irritable, while DeAngelo was eager to chat. A young couple from Kentucky overheard us talking and asked if they could flip their chairs around and join us. They were Brad Musser, an Army veteran who’d served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2017, and his wife, a therapist-in-training who said she’d prefer not to have her name published.

DeAngelo started one of the first legal weed dispensaries in California and the industry’s first trade association. He said he worried psychedelics would repeat the mistakes of the cannabis industry, which has been crippled by poor regulation. Firstman was, like me, a little overwhelmed by the conference, he said. The most enthusiastic person in our circle turned out to be Musser, a clean-cut redhead with a square jaw. “Psychedelics saved my life,” he said. He didn’t elaborate, but the haunted look on his face seemed to tell a longer, darker story.

The movement’s biggest enthusiasts — especially on the political left — tend to share stories of traumatized vets benefitting from psychedelics, in part because they appeal to those on the right who might otherwise be skeptical. I asked Musser if he saw a risk to veterans, who often are using treatments that are still experimental. “We’re losing up to 12 people a day,” he said, referring to the ongoing epidemic of veteran suicides. “Even if there are risks, risk be damned, to some degree.”

I asked whether the military might use psychedelics to heal soldiers more quickly from their battle-induced trauma and get them back into the field to potentially be re-traumatized. Musser paused, giving this consideration. “It’s an interesting question,” he said. “If they want to get back in and fight for their freedom, I don’t see a problem with that.”

At one of the after-parties, I met Joel Brierre, a beautifully tattooed 40-year-old who runs a retreat in Mexico where people take a synthetic version of a strong, naturally-occurring psychedelic called 5-MeO-DMT. He believes in the power of psychedelics to heal, but he’s also clear-eyed about their potential to cause harm. “5-MeO-DMT is a highly potent substance. When used improperly, it’s known to have some very adverse effects,” he said. “There have been deaths, people going into psychosis, all of which can be easily mitigated with trained practitioners that know what they’re doing. When companies are raising large amounts of capital and pursuing 5-MeO because it’s more scalable, because it’s faster acting, that’s scary to us, because we know how powerful it is.”

Psychedelics are not for everyone. They should be introduced slowly and carefully, with whatever safeguards can be created. There should also be criminal sanctions for bad actors who break the law. In an investigative podcast released in 2021, New York Magazine explored a series of stories involving sexual assault by so-called guides and shamans, in America and around the world, and broadly made the case that MAPS and other enthusiasts were too dismissive of the dangers of psychedelics. In a December 2022 article for the psychedelic-themed publication Lucid News, an independent researcher named Floris Wolswijk wrote that he’d tracked more than 400 clinical trials exploring psychedelics’ various potential medical effects. While there are ample promising findings and anecdotes, he wrote, “data on long-term effects are severely lacking.” Of all the participants in those clinical trials, he noted, only 212 had received follow-up interviews after three months. The research is still young, and much of it is flawed.

Brad Burge joined MAPS as a student at U.C. San Diego in 2009, recognizing it as the only organization that might offer a legitimate career in psychedelics. He started as a volunteer seeking donations at music festivals, then interned as an editor of the MAPS newsletter. In 2011, he became its director of communications, a job he held for a decade until he was laid off. He founded his own psychedelics-focused communications company and still supports MAPS and its mission, he told me, but also worries about the consequences of policy outpacing science. “If local jurisdictions decriminalize and legalize these substances without adequate scientific knowledge about their risks and without adequate harm reduction measures,” Burge said, “we’re going to get more horror stories.”

Peer-reviewed studies take time to conduct. It may be decades before sufficient bodies of research exist that conclude mushrooms are in fact a viable treatment for depression, or MDMA for PTSD. But we’ve heard enough powerful stories, and the desperation for a better path to healing is so great, that much of the movement is leaning hard on science to come up with the right answer, or ignoring science altogether. So whatever concerns critics have about rushed trials, unsanctioned retreats and a paucity of standards that might hold people accountable, may inevitably be drowned out by the sound a cash register makes when its drawer swings open.

In the rush of the moment, we seem to be overlooking a core challenge: If the ’60s-era hippies thought psychedelics would save the world, today’s psychonauts think it will save themselves. “We’re living in a very individualized society,” Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist who has led psilocybin trials for Imperial College London, told me.

Her trials have involved companies forking over $100,000 for a single person to have a psychedelic experience. When she suggests to these companies that for another $1,000 the subjects could receive more follow-on support to help them make sense of their psychedelic journeys, she told me, they think it’s too expensive. It’s like we’re swimming in toxic water, and the only solution we’re interested in is medicating the fish. “If someone has a psychedelic experience and there’s no support and integration community around it, they’ll go right back to a society cut off from nature — back to the Starbucks, the train, the job, the numbing,” she told me. “Even if the individuals change, it’s the culture that’s the issue. Put somebody back in that culture, they will become unwell again.”

In one of the last sessions I attended, Chief Nixiwaka Yawanawa, an Indigenous spiritual leader from Brazil, strode onto the main stage of the Bellco Theater dressed in the regalia of his tribe, the Yawanawa. They live in the western part of Brazil, in near total isolation, and use what they call “spirit vine” in ceremonies to better understand medicine, art and the origins of the universe. With an interpreter relaying his message, he acknowledged the pain we were all there to heal. But he also implored the audience to understand the root causes of our trauma. “These mental problems are linked with everything the Western man is doing: the destruction of tropical forests of the earth, the pollution of rivers, the extinction of biodiversity. It’s because of that behavior that the world is sick,” Yawanawa said. “I see many companies creating pills with ayahuasca. Even if the active ingredients in these drugs can cure some things, these are divine beings we communicate with. We pray. We ask them for permission. Are you doing that? No. You’re doing this for the market. For your own egos.”

On the last day of the convention, I reclined in a chair from an Austin-based company called Shiftwave and vibrated, blissed out, to the soothing voice of Cate Blanchett. I got to try out a new device called Apollo, which looks — when strapped to an ankle — like a house-arrest bracelet but promises freedom from stress, sleepiness, sleeplessness, shyness, laziness and other nesses. I sampled some (not magic) mushroom pills and got a free professional headshot that was enhanced by a cream that temporarily cured my eye puffiness. And then it was over, this epic gathering of the brightest and most enthusiastic minds in psychedelics.

I came, I saw, I did a few mind-altering substances, and I stayed excited about the beauty and potential of psychedelics, but remained skeptical of the frenzy. I understand why everyone is so enthused about legal psychedelics, but I’m content with the black market for now, buying psilocybin from a dude I know and LSD from another dude I know, and relieved that, thanks to decriminalization in Oregon, it won’t land me in jail. These drugs don’t help me throw touchdowns or create companies, but they make me feel better. I’m still hopeful that psychedelics will lead to new pathways of healing. But as someone who uses them regularly, the biggest epiphany I had in Denver is that we might not really need them — that maybe there are other, equally powerful ways to find meaning and connection.

The best session I attended at the conference was an afternoon workshop called “Be the Drug,” held in the dark and trip-friendly Deep Space exhibit hall. I pulled up a folding chair at the edge of a hundred more that had been arranged into a semicircle filled with the science geeks and namaste types who packed this convention. Standing on a stage in front of us was facilitator Troy Dayton, in silver lame pants. He began by reminding everyone who’d done drugs before about that feeling you get right after you take something, when you already feel high even though the drug hasn’t started to work. Dayton wanted us to push into that space— without the drugs — by gathering a bit of saliva in our mouths as if there were some substance floating around in it. Then, he said, find the closest person next to you, introduce yourself, and decide which one of you is going to sit cross-legged and which one of you is going to lay down on the floor and look upward at that person, right in the eyes.

Hold that eye contact, he said.

I was sitting next to a young woman with a kind face, and we smiled awkwardly as I laid down and rested my head in her lap, gazing up at her. It was weird, hard, cool. Afterward, we were told to stand up and stroll around for a bit until we found another partner.

I wandered up to a man named Charles, who was easily half a foot taller than me. As I stood gazing into his soft, sincere eyes, the silver-pants man told us to think about trust — and to do the best we possibly could to trust this person at whom we were gazing. Like, really trust them. And then, as we were doing that, to think about how we might not have always been so trustworthy in our own lives, and to remember that the person across from us, Charles, was thinking about that, too. We needed to sink all of our trust into this person, knowing that both of us were now thinking about a time that we’d betrayed trust and the person we’d let down.

I felt a flood of emotion — fear and shame, hope and love — in that elongated moment, looking at Charles, working through one complicated thought after another. “Can he see it? Am I betraying my betrayals? Can he trust me anyway? Do I deserve his trust? Does he deserve mine? Can I trust him?”

When it was over, Charles came in for what I knew would be a big, long hug.

He said, “I love you, Winston.”

And I believed him.

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