Pubdate: Thu, 17 Oct 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Casey Schwartz


At 74, the venture capitalist George Sarlo might not have seemed an
obvious candidate for an ayahuasca experience. Mr. Sarlo, a Hungarian 
Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1956, has had great 
professional success as the co-founder of Walden Venture Capital. He lives 
in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood, in a large house with an 
unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

And yet something was always lacking. Mr. Sarlo's father had
disappeared from their Budapest home in 1942. He had been drafted in a 
forced labor battalion, an experience he did not survive. At age 4, George 
had told himself that it was because he was "a bad boy" that his father 
had left that day, early in the morning, without saying goodbye. He 
believes that he never recovered from that early loss.

Mr. Sarlo's close friend, a doctor, told him about ayahuasca, a
psychedelic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, native to
the Amazon. Used for centuries in sacred healing traditions throughout 
Central and South America, ayahuasca is now gaining popularity around the 
world, featured in recent headlines about the habits of Silicon Valley, 
though N, N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, the active ingredient in an 
ayahuasca trip, is mostly illegal in the United States (there are a couple 
of exceptions, under religious exemption). Ayahuasca tourism is thriving, 
with more and more people happy to fly thousands of miles to take part in 
weeklong ceremonies in Peruvian jungles, or to seek out more luxurious 
contexts, like a four-star resort that comes complete with masseuses, 
pools, and state of the art fitness centers. And, notably, ayahuasca's 
increasing popularity knows no age limits: many of those now showing 
interest are squarely in Mr. Sarlo's own demographic.

Mr. Sarlo himself was initially skeptical. Taking ayahuasca would
entail a potentially distressing night of hallucinations, and
excretions of all kind, especially vomiting. One of the most notorious
aspects of an ayahuasca journey is the violent purging involved. But
he still decided to head to Yelapa, a small village in Mexico, and
swallow down the bitter brew.

That night, he saw a series of "old-fashioned photographs of soldiers in 
Hungarian uniforms," he said, and black-and-white movie footage. But he 
was scared, and sick, and swore that if he managed to come out of the 
hallucination, he would never go back in. The next day, exhausted and 
uncomprehending, he told the shaman that he was disappointed he hadn't 
found his father. The shaman told him he should try again the next night: 
on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Mr. Sarlo decided it was worth one more try. He drank again. Very
quickly, he saw a forest covered with snow. "There were dead bodies
all over the place," he said. "There was one skeleton sticking out of the 
snow. And somehow I knew that was my father.

"I don't know exactly how we communicated because I didn't see anyone 
alive but I heard his voice. He came to me and I asked him a very 
important question, which was: 'why didn't you say goodbye?' He said, he 
thought he could get out of it, and be back the same day, so why wake up 
little George?

"I asked a second question: 'Did you love me?' He pointed at the
skeleton sticking out of the snow." The skeleton's mouth hung open.
"He said: look at me. That's my last breath. And with my last breath, I 
blessed you and I promised to guard you all your life."

Mr. Sarlo said that afterward, something shifted. He realized that his 
life had been "absolutely full of miracles," he said. "It changed my life 
completely." Granny Takes a Trip

His story is a testament to one strain of thinking about psychedelics: 
that, as Michael Pollan put it, "psychedelics might be wasted on the 
young." Mr. Pollan, the author of the recent best seller "How To Change 
Your Mind," a history of psychedelics and a chronicle of his own 
experiences trying them, said in an interview, "It's not that young people 
don't have valuable experiences, they do. It's that what psychedelics seem 
to be particularly good for is jogging us out of our grooves of habit and 
allowing us to acquire a fresh perspective on familiar things. And as you 
get older, you get mired in habits."

Indeed, Mr. Pollan, who is 64 (and has written for The Times), said he was 
surprised by the number of people he encountered when writing his book in 
their 70s and 80s expressing interest in trying psychedelics. Though 
perhaps he shouldn't have been: as he himself has written, one of the 
reasons to come to psychedelics later in life is to tangle with one's own 
mortality. "This is a taboo topic in our culture, nobody talks about 
death," he said. "And with ayahuasca in particular, which can sponsor some 
pretty dark journeys, people often come back with insights about death."

Scientific data on older people using ayahuasca is elusive but
anecdotal evidence is growing.

At Rythmia, a high-end retreat which offers ayahuasca ceremonies in
Costa Rica, Gerry Powell, the owner, carefully tracks all the guests
who come for a week of plant medicine. Since opening in 2016, Mr.
Powell said that about 6,000 people had stayed at Rythmia; of that
number, more than 15 percent have been 65 or older. Every week, he
said, there is at least one person in their late 70s partaking of
ayahuasca, if not their 80s.

Mr. Powell said the motivation for trying ayahuasca differs, as one
may expect, according to age. It's the younger guests, 35 to 55, who
tend to come because of problems they're having, strained
relationships, blocked careers. But for the 65-plus demographic, the
question is often closer to "What is my purpose?"

"There was a time when you would retire at 63 and be dead at 65," Mr. 
Powell said. "But because people are living so much longer, you have more 
time to do things with your life. People want to feel

Wendy Portnuff, 75, who has attended Rythmia, first went to Costa Rica 
three years ago with her husband, Tom Lorch, 82. Ms. Portnuff, who lives 
in San Francisco, is a former manager at IBM who heard about ayahuasca 
from a friend who is a naturopath. She was intrigued, having been unhappy 
with her relationship to food for decades. "I had worked on it for so 
long. I needed to get out of me to complete the process."

Her husband wasn't interested in drinking ayahuasca, but came to Costa 
Rica to support her. When they arrived, he became curious about the 
experience, but wasn't able to participate because of heart problems. (At 
Rythmia all guests are screened in a medical intake both before and upon 
arrival.) As it happened, both husband and wife wound up having profound 
experiences that week. Ms. Portnuff, taking part in the nightly ayahuasca 
ceremonies, had an insight on the very first night that, as she said, "I 
had been denying my soul. And my soul was trying to speak to me. It was 
trying to say: 'I'm okay.'"

Her husband went to a breath-work workshop and had a transformation:
years of anger and dissatisfaction with the world melting away. The
two say their marriage of 49 years changed dramatically that week.
Three years later, they are still on their "second honeymoon." "I've
gotten a new lease on life, "Ms. Portnuff said. "I was thinking that
my life is winding down - and it's not. It's speeding up. I'm excited 
every day."

"There is hope for us old people," her husband added. Ms. Portnuff has 
returned to Rythmia two more times to continue her ayahuasca

People might startle at the image of someone old enough to be their
grandparents willingly embarking on a night of hallucinations and
vomiting. But Sophia Rokhlin, co-author of the new book on ayahuasca, 
"When Plants Dream," said when it comes to the tradition of drinking 
ayahuasca, nothing could be more natural. In countries like Ecuador, for 
example, among tribes who practice healing traditions with ayahuasca (more 
often referred to there as yage), the dynamic Ms. Rokhlin has more often 
observed is this: the elders are increasingly the only ones drinking. "The 
use of ayahuasca and plant medicines is actually quite stigmatized and 
looked down upon by communities who are really trying to get a leg up in 
the capitalist economy," she said.

Younger members of communities who partake in ayahuasca ceremonies,
she said, are more intent on building materially successful lives in a 
global economy than they are preserving their local rituals.

But in the United States, Ms. Rokhlin sees the growth of interest
among the 70-and-up set as inevitable, for two main reasons: first,
more and more scientific studies are being published showing that
psychedelic agents have potential in treating persistent mental
distress. In one small study of 17 adults, ayahuasca helped relieve
recurrent depression. She said that scientifically backed research
matters more to this older demographic than trippy "kaleidoscopic
articles in Vice" extolling the ayahuasca experience. But as well, she 
said, for those "closer to the end than the beginning," there is also an 
increasing sense that "there's nothing left to lose."

And some of these older users are baby boomers, after all, turning
again to the kind of mind-expanding substances they remember, at least 
culturally, from their youth.

This isn't to say there aren't risks associated. Heart problems can be 
disqualifying. So can many prescription medications. Rick Doblin, the 
founder of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or 
MAPS), notes that for this older age group, a smaller dose of any 
psychedelic often suffices, as we can become more sensitive to drugs as we 

Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA
School of Medicine, who has been researching psychedelics since the
1980s, said: "With elderly people, there should be some emphasis on
being aware that higher doses may have a level of risk that would not be 
present with younger individuals. Particularly for cardiovascular 
problems," such as arrhythmia. "There needs to be more research." Dr. Grob 
advises older people to get a full cardiac work-up before using psychedelics.

Dr. Dan Engle, a psychiatrist in Boulder, Colo., warns that another
risk for people in their 70s and 80s is the number of pharmaceutical
drugs that are contraindicated for ayahuasca, including the most
common form of anti-depressants, Selective Serontonin Reuptake
Inhibitors (S.S.R.I.s). "But all of that said, ayahuasca is a
visionary medicine and it can heal core psychological wounds," Dr.
Engle said. "At that stage in their life, in their 70s and 80s,
ayahuasca can help people become present and have more

None of the medical caveats deterred James Kilkenny, 70. Mr. Kilkenny, a 
construction manager who lives in Manhattan's West Village, began 
experimenting with ayahuasca over the last few years, after hearing about 
it from a friend who teaches yoga. He said that at this point, he's done 
about 25 ayahuasca ceremonies.

He's certainly not in it for pleasure-seeking. "Ayahuasca journeys for me 
are not fun," he said. "They're painful as hell. They can give you 
diarrhea and vomiting, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both 
at the same time." Beyond the physical, there's the unpredictable 
emotions: At times he has felt trapped, fearful and isolated. "And you 
can't think your way out of it."

Yet Mr. Kilkenny said he has gained extraordinary insight. During one 
ceremony in Peru, he said he was transported back to the earliest sense he 
had as a kid. "I knew that my childhood, while it wasn't abusive, was very 
very cold. It had very little approval or affection in it. What I saw that 
night was: picture an upside-down pyramid. That point of the pyramid was 
the first thought. The first thought was loneliness and need for affection 
and approval. And the pyramid going up from that was my whole life. So my 
whole life was based on that one moment, seeking affection and approval."

For Mr. Kilkenny, what the ayahuasca journeys have provided him with
is profound "information." Now, in the moments when he recognizes his own 
need for validation, he is less inclined to act on it. This has meant that 
certain relationships have become untenable, like a
longstanding romantic involvement that had a lot to do with
"neediness." The relationship's dissolution made him sad, but did not 
crush him.

"My life is a lot quieter and it's a lot more peaceful," he said.
"Less seeking, less grasping, less needing. Less fear."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt