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Book Review: "Whole Medicine" by Rebecca Martinez

Book cover of Whole Medicine by Rebecca Martinez. Orange background, faint white and yellow starburst under white print.

My first experience with hallucinogens came during the final weeks of my freshman year at Vassar College. It was Founders Day, a campus wide party for celebrating Matthew Vassar's birthday and (for many students) consuming lots of drugs, and a friend offered to share her stash of mushrooms.

I gulped them down. Unfamiliar or disinterested in hallucinatory ethics, my friend went off with a future plastic surgeon and left me alone to manage my inaugural trip. It had its moments but, on the whole, it didn't go especially well.

During high school, I'd recorded and repeatedly viewed the movie Altered States on my family's VCR and reappropriated my dad's collection of Carlos Castaneda books. While both Altered States and Castaneda's versions of psychedelic experimentation were less than user friendly, they nevertheless stoked a desire to expand my own consciousness and access otherwise hidden realities.

After that first trip, it seems miraculous that I would have tried mushrooms again, but the mere fact that they revealed to me the appeal of tie dye -- after years of turning up my nose at Deadheads and their questionable fashion choices - must have seemed a radical enough shift in my worldview to try again.

Subsequent trips were more successful, some more revelatory than others, and I reached adulthood with a healthy respect for both the rewards and the perils of fungal magic. As I continued to mature, I satisfied my thirst for an expanded consciousness through additional practices such as shamanism, dreamwork, past-life regression, and the Enneagram. And while the specific contributions of each modality were unique, along the way I also discovered what all these systems had in common: a dangerous potential for cult dynamics, abuses of power, and the perpetuation of harmful social constructs, especially racism.

This observation was only strengthened once I began hearing stories of abuse in the growing field of psychedelic assisted therapy. As a result, I got my hands on an Advanced Readers Copy* of Rebecca Martinez's Whole Medicine as soon as I could, seeing as I was not going to pass up a book with the subtitle: A Guide to Ethics and Harm-reduction for Psychedelic Therapy and Plant Medicine Communities.

Combining memoir, interviews, and historical context, as well as sound recommendations for the psychedelic healing process, every chapter of Whole Medicine speaks to phenomenon I've observed and witnessed in both drug-induced states and healing spaces. The further I read into the material, the more I came to see that, just as all healing dynamics are rife with the potential for abuse, practitioners and participants in every modality would benefit from the guidelines laid down by Martinez and her co-authors Juliette Mohr and David Bronner.

Martinez, who trains psychedelic facilitators and founded the Alma Institute in Oregon, divides the book into chapters with simple one word titles such as Inner--Work, Presence, Shadow, and Consent, but within each chapter is a world of complex human dynamics which transcend the psychedelic practitioner/participant dyad and touch on all relationships in which one person holds power, authority or the promise of safety over another. The rules for psychedelic experience as expressed in this manual, therefore, are no different from the rules to which human beings should be adhering everywhere in our lives.

This observation seemingly proves the promise and power of psychedelics; these substances have the capacity to magnify every aspect of our realities, making both miracles and shadows, and dysfunctions and consequences, more apparent than they are in everyday awareness and thus more able to be transformed. To mix metaphors here, in the psychedelic state, interpersonal dynamics are like relationships on steroids -- not necessarily different, just more.

As psychedelic therapies continue to enter the mainstream, they will be put under a microscope, walking a tightrope between their former reputation as lawless and antisocial and their new image as therapeutic and beneficial. The more facilitators and journeyers who read this book -- and practice its wisdom -- the greater the chances that not only will individuals continue to benefit from the good that psychoactive substances can do, but that society will as well.

*Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC (Advanced Readers Copy)

Martinez, Rebecca, Mohr, Juliette, foreword by Bronner, David, Whole Medicine, A Guide to Ethics and Harm-reduction for Psychedelic Therapy and Plant Medicine Communities. North Atlantic, 2024 (pre-order here)

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