A Firefighter’s Story of Meditation and Psilocybin (Guest Interview)

This episode is a deep dive into the benefits of meditation with psilocybin. Steve is a retired US Forest Service Chief Branch for Risk Management. During his career there was a tragedy that lost 14 firefighters, because of that event new practices were taught to firefighters, one of those was meditation. Steve took to meditation and has made this wonderful practice a huge part of his own life. He was inspired to take the leap and attended his first retreat with Eleusinia to see if the hype was true about psychedelics and meditation. Listen here or on Apple Podcast.

Tawnya: You have made it to The Psilocybin Podcast with Tales from Eleusinia a unique science-based psilocybin retreat based out of Mexico. That not only focuses on brain health and wellbeing, but actually specializes in pain management. I am your host, Tawnya, the medical director come along. Jessica, the founder of this retreat is my cohost.

As we break down the latest in psychedelic research news and the inner workings of this amazing experience.

I’m so excited to introduce to you this next guest. This is Steve and he actually came to Eleusinia twice. He’s a retired US Forest Service, Chief of Risk Management. Early in Steve’s career, he learned about meditation as they were concerned after a tragedy where the lives of 14 firefighters were lost. Meditation was taught and luckily steve was able to use meditation to benefit his life long term he came to Eleusinia cause he was really interested in how psychedelics could aid meditation so this discussion is first going to have Steve’s story which is beautiful and then Jessica and I are going to dive into what we think about it and some science of meditation You’ll love this. Enjoy.

Steve, Retired US Forest Service, Chief of Risk Management

Tawnya: Steve, thank you so much for coming. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what your background is.

Steve: Well, who I am is probably the luckiest person that I know. I had a very fortunate 43 year career in the Forest Service which was a fabulous adventure moving all across the country, dragging my family along with me and seeing all the national forests and doing a lot of different things for the Forest Service.

Met some great people. So I’ve been retired for. Almost two years now. And and I’m loving that too, and have a much more time for meditation, for travel and doing things particularly in the summer with the Forest Service job, if you’re involved in fire, you don’t have any summertime.

That’s not yours anymore. So now it’s mine and it’s good.

Tawnya: Can you tell us a little bit about how you found meditation and how it helped you in your career?

Steve: So in 1994, there was a pretty significant burnover tragedy in Colorado of 14 firefighters. And a lot of analysis and hand ringing went into that, that event.

And one of the people on the team was a psychologist named Ted Putnam and and he brought a whole different perspective and his perspective was not about, they violated rules, but his perspective was how did they make sense of their time when they were being surprised?

How did they make sense of the fire? And he worked on that and worked on that and the same time over about another 15 years after that, I was a rising person in the safety and risk management world within the Forest Service. And so I had some the degree of clout in that. And I’ve met with Ted several times and he teamed up with another psychologist named Jim Saveland.

And they came up with the idea of, we should teach firefighters meditation. Because one of the aspects of mindfulness is that you do become very aware of, of a lot of things and the monkey voice in your head that keeps telling your own narrative and stories it is quieted. And so you do pay more attention.

And I didn’t understand that at the time, but they approached me with an idea to teach hot shots, which are the elite firefighters in the world of firefighting. Sorry, smoke jumpers. But teach firefighters, particularly hot shots, meditation and see if they attached to it and see if that makes any difference.

So we went myself and another safety professional went to different hot shot crews across the country. And they, spent a day teaching meditation to hot shots and it was well-received, but it did not stick. And I think there’s particularly back in the the two thousands, there was quite a macho culture.

And in the idea of meditation seems less than macho to a lot of people. And so the odds were stacked against him, but I have had other hot shots who remembered that and individually kept it up, but not as a crew. And they have been very grateful for the opportunity to learn. So that’s what got me interested in meditation.

Tawnya: So you stayed committed to a practice after teaching it?

Steve: I wasn’t teaching, I was facilitating them doing it, but then that gave me a hook. And and then over the year started reading about it. One of the most influential books to me is 10% Happier by Dan Harris.

And it, it really resonates with me because not that happiness is the goal of meditation but it does bring happiness and it’s just, it’s a side benefit. And so I bought that book for many of my friends. I’ve bought dozens of copies and handed them out. But then since then there’s many, many other books and there’s, there’s great meditation apps. My favorite is Waking Up by Sam Harris.

And although Dan Harris, Harris has an app as well, but anyway And using that reading and studying I’ve developed a practice now where I’ve certainly meditated over a thousand hours and, the more you do it, the easier it becomes, but it is an exercise and you gotta be committed to exercising that mind muscle.

And and you know, sometimes it’s not pleasant like going to the gym sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not, but you gotta keep it up. And so that’s where I am right now. What intrigued me was in some of these apps, but particularly Sam Harris’s- he does have a lot of conversations with people about psychedelics.

That intrigued me about psilocybin. I found this retreat here, where I’m speaking to you, and I gave it a chance on a leap of faith. I talked with Jessica, the owner of this retreat, and she reassured me that the safety of it. And of course, as a long-term government employee, I never did any kind of drugs.

The Benefit of Psilocybin and Meditation- The Rocketship

Nothing, not at all. And so this was a totally new experience to me. And what I found particularly at the higher dose was that my first experience was, you go into a meditation state gently at when you’re doing it without psilocybin, when you’re doing it on psilocybin, you have a meditation rocket ship underneath you.

And and yeah, some people, if your goal is not meditation, then I don’t, I don’t know what you’ll find on psilocybin. If your goal is meditation, I can say you will get, you’ll have a deep, deep meditation experience. And you definitely want to take the Zofran so that, that doesn’t ruin it.

And and I’ve played around with some microdosing and mini dosings and so I’m continuing learn how to grow here and I’m continuing to refine my mycology skills and it’s great. I am so thankful to Jessica and all the staff for putting this together.

Tawnya: Well, thank you so much for going into your history with meditation.

It’s really unique and especially in your history with the career and what led you to meditation and psilocybin, it’s really important to us to combine those two. Your particular story and your insight of what brought you here, it’s really unique. So thank you so much.

Steve: Thanks, Tawnya.

Tawnya: You’re so welcome.

That was one of our guests, Steve. There’s so many reasons why I love having the opportunity to get to talk about this story. I feel like that 1994 burnover tragedy was so significant that I believe there was like even a country song written about it.

I mean, it was a big deal. Also what hits me the most is that Steve was a government employee, never touched any recreational drugs whatsoever. And it was meditation that was the goal of why he found Eleusinia. Do you have any significant takes on that?

Jessica: I think Steve is such an interesting character.

He was one of the few guests that came to us with an already established meditation practice that he was just looking to add to, to bring it to another level. So that was something that was unique for me.

Tawnya: That is unique. And as he said, it became a meditation rocket ship.

Jessica: A pretty accurate assessment. I think that it is like, yes, tying your consciousness to a rocket ship. That’s taking you way deep into a level of meditation that might be very difficult to access without that assistance.

Tawnya: And I love how he said that the book 10% Happier, it talks about meditation and happiness is not necessarily the goal, but it is an added benefit. So that’s really interesting, but his story moves through an interesting trajectory because as he was a part of facilitating the education to the hot shots.

Macho Firefighters And Meditation

And at that time there was a lot of macho- I’m sure they were like, oh my God, we have to learn meditation. Is this a joke? You know, I’m sure many of them went in absolutely hating it

Jessica: I can relate to that. I can relate to that a hundred percent.

Tawnya: They hated it. But then afterwards probably were like, oh, okay.

That’s something that’s cool, but they couldn’t add it in as a practice into their lives. But what made Steve different is that Steve did. And so this is kind of common. And I’d like to ask you Jessica a little bit about your story, how you inadvertently found meditation. Can you take us back into what that looked like?

Jessica: I went the back route, completely flipped around backwards the other way around, because I was taking psilocybin to treat a headache condition. I really wasn’t interested in meditation. I had maybe tried it a couple of times, found it to be completely miserable. You said the word meditation? I would probably just like roll my eyes, hard enough maybe to injure myself and, and just being completely, completely ignore it.

It wasn’t my thing. But after the repetitive sessions for treating my headache condition, it was like I said, well, this is something pretty unique. And I found that there was some overlap between my experience and what’s meditators would describe, and I could relate to it maybe more as described as a flow state.

Because I with the other activities that I did- sports, outdoor hiking, etc., I could relate to the idea of a flow state, but just the word meditation would just make me want to run the other way.

Tawnya: That’s so interesting. The flow state, there’s a lot of ease to it. So now you’re saying that through psilocybin you found a flow state with meditation.

If the firefighters that were getting the education had a feeling that it was a flow state, I think that they would have took to it a lot easier.

Jessica: I think that that would have been a better choice of words. If you’re going to try and get a bunch of macho firefighters to get into some sort of activity, maybe using the term “flow state” that would have appealed a little bit more to the personalities that he was talking about there in that video.

Meditation Under Stress?

Tawnya: I know that you saw a lot of different doctors and you tried a lot of different routes.

And when you were going into the visits, a lot of them would ask you about your stress level. And you know, this happens to many people. A lot of times the first thing their doctors will say is, have you tried meditation?

Jessica: Yeah. That would, that would really get me going. Not in a good way.

I would just see red, like a rage like this doctor is standing there perfectly comfortable. Cause obviously they’re not in pain, like I am, and make a statement like have you tried meditation? And the first and that would go through my mind is, well, let’s see if I break your arm and then suggest meditation, I would like to know how successful you will be through that, that experience right there. Cause I got a few distractions going on over here. It’s not, it wouldn’t be easy.

Tawnya: I think that’s happening to people all over. And so they’re so desperate

Jessica: And then just to be clear, I want to say I have not actually assaulted any medical professionals.

Tawnya: Okay. Good. Good. I’m glad you cleared that up.

Jessica: It all happened to my head. It was just an idea.

Tawnya: So then all these people are getting told, you know, have you tried meditation? And it is really hard because we have this hope and we’re hoping desperately that Western medicine is going to have an answer for, for these conditions.

And we can’t try meditation because we’re an agony. It’s so hard to do it, but now, using what Steve just said as psilocybin as a catalyst for a rocket ship into a flow state into meditation is huge. So, so then what happened with you as you kind of started noticing this flow state more with your…

Flow State/Meditation

Jessica: The physical aspects of a psychedelic experience were something that I could relate to a little bit more, it was actually yes, a feeling of, almost like floating of being weightless.

With no gravity. And that’s what I could relate to if I thought about, okay, this meditative experience, what exactly is it? Is it just sitting there being quiet, looking peaceful, or is there actually something going on physically that you could relate to like certain sensations? That’s what psychedelics changed for me.

They made a clear delineation between- here’s your regular state, and then here is this intense flow state. It had a physical sensation.

Tawnya: What would happen on the days that were not your dosing day? Did you try to meditate on those days as well?

Jessica: Well, at first no, meditation wasn’t really my thing. But, what I found was that I tried using that same app that Steve was talking about the Sam Harris app, Waking Up. It’s a great app, I have a lot of respect for Sam Harris. I really enjoy his books and the way he talks; I can relate to his point of view.

So that naturally translated into I’m going to give us app a try. And I did find that yes, after a few psychedelic experiences, it was easier to reach that point that they’re talking about in the app of just observing thoughts as they come in, as they come out. And there were some other apps like breathing exercises apps that were really like flipping a switch where all of a sudden those sensations that I associated with the psychedelic state could be just called up, manifested in the moment, through some breathing exercises.

Tawnya: Wow. And so how long in your practice, how many months had gone by before you got to that guru state?

Jessica: Guru state? It’s snuck up on me. Well first, I noticed that during some, like, I would take a nap and slip into almost like, like a daydreaming or dream state and that physical sensation would return a bit. My dreams got a little bit more colorful, a little bit more intense. I would say about maybe it’s six months in.

Tawnya: And I remember on one of our first calls, you were trying to describe to me the importance of meditation and Eleusinia. And you did try to bring words to that floating state. And it’s a hard to articulate kind of experience.

Jessica: It really is. I think that most things about the psychedelic state are very hard to articulate.

It’s an ineffable. you can’t really communicate it. But the best description that I could find is after, yes, after a few minutes of this rhythmic breathing, it is like the floor drops out from underneath you and you are just floating, floating in space.

Tawnya: This particular guest had come to multiple retreats, loves Eleusinia, we’re so grateful. And it’s just so exciting to have somebody who loves the meditation and the breath work so much because it is such an important part.

Jessica: I didn’t have to sell the idea of meditation to Steve. Steve already loved meditation. He just wanted to make it better.

Tawnya: And it’s, yeah, it was interesting that he says you know, that if you’re not looking for meditation, I don’t know what it will do for you.

So that was kind of interesting.

The Stoic And Psychedelics

Jessica: I think that I can relate to Steve’s personality on this level. That it’s a very, like, almost like a stoic type of personality that cannot necessarily lean into the hedonistic side of let’s say meditation or psychedelics.

He, he has a very stoic personality where I think discipline plays a big part in what he sees as virtuous, as in what, what he respects.

I can see someone with that personality shying away from the idea of leaning into the more hedonistic side of psychedelics, because I am in many ways the same way, I really enjoy stoic philosophy.

So I can relate to the idea of like of equating a meditative practice with discipline and that’s something that he can respect and relate to.

We do things for pleasure for enjoyment, but I think that you have to equate that a little bit together with discipline in order to feel comfortable with pleasure, with hedonism.

Tawnya: Well said. Yeah. Before I moved my career into psychedelics my experience, I would go in my early twenties to an ashram and we would do tons of breath work with meditation and we would meditate all day, but with a lot of breathing exercises and it was so profound, like it was one of the most psychedelic experience I’ve said, in my life.

I’ve since kind of changed, but to say that intense meditation with breathing can be so psychedelic is amazing to really experience that. And it, it did require a huge amount of discipline. There was no rocket ship. The rocket ship was the breath. So to be able to teach this in a way that people can take it home and put the rocket ship in their pocket for when they want to use it is really cool.

The techniques that we teach at Eleusinia are really simple. They’re simple techniques.

Jessica: Well, I think it’s, pretty common that you feel like everything has to be associated with discipline.

Nothing comes free. I can see that as a way that we block our own blessings with that attitude sometimes. It’s like you cannot let yourself free to enjoy something without at first observing the discipline side of it.

Tawnya: Wow. So then how did you watch that transform in yourself?

Because if you had this personality, how has psilocybin blown that open?

Jessica: I’m not sure it has completely. I think that my sense of discipline has developed a little bit on the, on the same side, because I mean, there’s this term in meditation where you meditate yourself into something called the dark night.

Have you ever heard of that? The dark night is a state of meditation where, it’s very disorienting. Triangulating your space in the world. Triangulating what consciousness is, it can become something that’s very disorienting. I think it’s pretty common with psychedelics that people experiment, they try, and there is a point where it becomes uncomfortable.

Where it becomes a little bit too much. And that does fall along the same parallels of intense levels of meditation. You work really hard to the point that you become disoriented. The idea of meditation is to reduce that concept of self, to change the way you feel about your ego. And your ego is a very stabilizing part of your existence.

And when, whether through meditation or psychedelics, you break that down, it does take a quite a bit of discipline and effort to keep yourself steady and triangulated in your consciousness.

Tawnya: Yeah. I think that in the psychedelic culture, we do have terms that are catch-alls and I think people pretend to understand them.

And I know that. People have asked have you had an ego death and what does that look like? And I think that’s one of those things that it’s such a personal definition and to give it such a generic thing is kind of interesting because you know, there’s a lot to it. Like you said about what the ego is, what that looks like.

Jessica: Right. And there’s also, have you ever heard the term? ” When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

But what if hanging up the phone is not an option?

Tawnya: Right, because you have a medical condition and you have to treat it with this way. What if you can’t?

Jessica: Yes. Yeah. That’s it, hanging up the phone is not really an option.

It’s like you have to have a certain amount of discipline to, to keep yourself steady throughout these experiences,

Tawnya: There still is discipline required, taking the mushrooms, committing a day for that, even when you’re doing it for a practice for pain management, it’s still a discipline because if you don’t do it, you, you kind of suffer and you have to carve out the time, the container.

Jessica: But if you don’t allow yourself to enjoy those little moments of what’s in front of you, then you also, you also miss out.

I’ve discovered that a certain level of hedonism requires discipline on my part.

Tawnya: Wow. Interesting.

Jessica: Giving yourself permission to enjoy.

Tawnya: So using the analogy of the telephone, how do you feel your relationship is with the telephone now? Are you, are you never going to hang up the phone?

Jessica: Oh, I don’t have an option, hang up the phone or not. I just, I have to listen to it and make sense of what’s what’s coming over the line, no matter what.

Breathwork And Psychedelic States

Tawnya: So I want to take this a little bit to the science. So when I used to go to the ashram do breath work in deep meditation people would say, well, you’re having these psychedelic experiences because you’re totally hypoxic. You know, you’re out of oxygen. That you’re you’re, you know, hallucinating because you’re nearly killing yourself.

And now we know that there’s a lot more to it, right? When we work hard, we’re getting BDNF. Right. For that, for that experience. Can you tell us a little bit more about what we know about the brain and those, those states working hard in meditation?

Jessica: Changes in blood flow are associated with the psychedelic state.

They’re also associated with a meditative state. They’ve observed high level meditators in fMRI machines and some activity in the brain is very similar to what happens during a psychedelic state. So I don’t know if you can necessarily separate those things and say it’s one or the other.

Physiologically, they’re very, very similar.

Would changes in blood flow equate to also being hypoxic? I’m not sure.

Different parts of the brain getting more blood flow compared to the other ones can change the effects.

I was listening to Dr. Robin Carhartt- Harris and Manesh “The Psychedelic Scientist” talk about those FMRI brain scans and what was so significant about those is that you can see the default mode network being turned off in the meditators as well as in the psychedelic experience with psilocybin. But they were also saying that there’s so much more going on in the brain. Like right now, our culture is kind of hyper-focused on the default mode network, but science is so ever changing that there’s so much more occurring in the brain besides just that. But that’s what we can visibly see at this point, but in five years or, you know, maybe, hopefully even sooner we can see a lot more.

I think it’ll be super interesting. And I think that we understand a lot about the brain, but also we understand very, very little about the brain. Very very little.

Tawnya: If those firefighters, those hot shots were to come-

Jessica: what’s up with the name, first of all, like why do they get to call themselves the hot shots?

Tawnya: Because fires are hot?

Because then he compared it to the smoke jumpers, which

Jessica: Smoke jumpers, hot shots and apparently there’s sort of war about who’s the biggest bad-ass. That’s what I took away from that.

Tawnya: So what if instead of, in that time, that fire, that tragedy happened in 1994 and then around 2000, they were teaching this meditation.

What happens if we get these firefighters, these government employees to come to Eleusinia and learn meditation with psilocybin, what would you predict the difference would be in their lives?

Jessica: I think that, that, I think that they would stick with it a little bit more.

The Bicycle

Tawnya: Can you go into a little bit about your analogy about riding the bike?

Jessica: Oh yes. Okay. So at the retreat, we have this talk where we compare the idea of meditating with the act of riding a bike. If you’ve never ridden a bike before in your life you’re not even sure how it works. As soon as you sit on that bike, it’s going to be super difficult and very confusing.

How do you get your balance? How do you get going? It’s not going to be a very pleasant experience. Adding to that meditating would be more like getting on a bike and trying to ride it uphill without actually knowing how a bike, how bike works. With a macro dose, a rather large dose of psychedelics, it turns into, instead of riding a bike uphill and having to pedal yourself, it’s like turning that wheel downhill and just going for the ride.

The pedals are turning, you get to observe how the whole balance thing works what it feels like to turn those pedals, with a little bit of help of gravity.

Tawnya: The wind in your hair as well. And then there’s this feeling of flying and elation. So that’s a wonderful analogy.

Right. Okay. So that is with the macro dose. And then we talk about learning how, sticking with the analogy of the bike, of how to redirect your experience. You know, the handlebars and making small changes, help to redirect your experience.

Jessica: That’s the homework with the macro doses. It’s like, trying to figure out a little bit about how to direct the experience. But with the mini dose, the homework is to figure out how to use those pedals on your own on a more level surface. A small mini dose just gets things going a lot easier. But after the macro dose, you already have an idea of what the sensation is, how these pedals work, what it’s like to balance and have that forward motion.

Tawnya: And then we get to use the breath to heighten the experience.

Jessica: That’s the pedaling.

Tawnya: Then that’s a pedaling and then you use the breath, the techniques, and then you hit a downhill again, and then you get the wind in your hair, the elation, the feeling of flying. I love that analogy.

Jessica: I think that you can take some joy and happiness from the fact that you have accomplished something. That you’ve been able to make these physiological changes in your body that you’ve been able to reach a certain level of concentration.

I would like to tell people that even if meditation doesn’t seem like it’s for you. If you heard that word meditation, it makes you want to run the other way, that after psychedelics, it doesn’t necessarily have that same connotation.

I really appreciate how meditation brings the idea of discipline to the field of psychedelics. It brings that idea that you’re not just there for the ride. You’re also an active participant and you do have to bring in a certain amount of, of concentration and discipline

Happiness and Meditation

Tawnya: That book, 10% Happier about meditation.

Now they were talking 10%. What we now know about psilocybin and the studies comparing psilocybin to SSRI’s. We know that we do get a whole different level of joy of wellbeing of this capacity to flourish in our own lives. So I think that if the next book was. written about meditation. What number of percent, when do you think it would be, do you think it’d be 10% happier?

Cause I’m shooting for 80 when you combine the psychedelics. That’s what I’m thinking. 80 to 85 solid.

Jessica: It could, but you know, just like what Steve says, meditation is not just about happiness. It’s not just about this hedonistic feeling of just elation, happiness.

It brings definitely that happiness, but I don’t think that’s the, I don’t mean to be the wet blanket. This conversation, “It’s not just about happiness. It’s not just about having a good time.” But you know what? That could also be my side of my personality, that does gravitate towards the stoicism that gravitates towards that idea of discipline.

Tawnya: Yeah. And I guess you’re right. Happiness is a difficult word to quantify, but I think we can rectify our degrees of our own suffering.

And that is a little bit more clear. And sometimes it’s hard to even realize if someone has developed a practice with psilocybin and meditation. Sometimes it’s hard to even remember how dark your darkest days were, but if you spend time comparing you now to you then it’s quite interesting. It’s quite interesting.

Yeah. You know, both of you and I would not be here today. If we individually didn’t have our different dark days and our days, those what’s so fascinating to me about humanity is that our depression or our pain it looks so different for everybody. And the similarity that ties it together is how intolerable it is to keep going in states like that.

Well, I’m so grateful that we got to review Steve’s story, and it was such a unique insight into the retreat and also into the power of meditation and also into what’s going on in the world of firefighters.


Jessica: I didn’t realize that that is a whole, a whole community. That’s what’s super interesting to me about meeting Steve is that it’s a whole community with its own microculture. These different personalities, these different positions of people who are like hot shots, smoke jumpers. Steve was a safety specialist who pretty much trained all of them.

I found this super interesting.

Tawnya: He also says, if you notice in the beginning of that, he says who I am, I’m the luckiest person that I know. And I mean, how incredible is that? I’m so happy that he can claim that because very few people can very few people who win the lottery will even say those words, that I’m the luckiest person that I know.

But, you know, I think I’m going to start saying that, you know, because I think I am what I’m lucky is persons that I know why not, you know?

Thank you guys so much for listening for us to go over to Steve and to talk about the meditation.

Jessica: Yeah, thanks for listening.

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