Ten Questions with Terry Gotham: Sara Gael, Director of Harm Reduction, Zendo Project

(Yes, I’m never going to stop banging on about harm reduction. At least as long as Burners are still smoking ground up ecstasy pills and combining heroic levels of dumb drugs. The people at the Zendo Project continue to keep Burners at burns all over the world safe, so I’m delighted to speak to Sara Gael, who has more to do with Burning Man staying sane than most will give credit!)

Zendo Project Manager Ryan Beauregard and Zendo Project Director Sara Gael performing a skit about harm reduction at Symbiosis Gathering in Oakdale, California (2016)

Photo care of Zendo Project

Interview by Terry Gotham

1.What is Psychedelic Harm Reduction like in 2018?
For the Zendo Project Peer Support services, we will continue to attend our regular events, and also expand our training workshop program. We provide both public and private trainings both in the US and internationally. We saw the demand for these trainings grow tremendously in 2017. The purpose of these workshops is to provide individuals and organizations with helpful tools to work with challenging situations, substance-related or otherwise- when they encounter them in any environment. Our public trainings draw a diverse crowd-everything from University students to mental health workers. We have also private trainings and consultation for event producers, emergency service professionals and we are increasing the number of these trainings in 2018. At Burning Man, we still hold our largest annual public training, on the first Tuesday of the burn week. Over 300 people attended this training in 2017. We feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to now train thousands of individuals in the Zendo Project model.

2.For Burners who may only remember the Zendo from a few years ago, what new awesomeness is coming to playa this year?
In 2017 we moved to one centralized location near Center Camp and Rampart. We plan on having one location again this year, in a slightly different location but still near 6:00. We are planning on doing additional talks and workshops later in the week after the main training for people who show up later in the week who can’t attend the main workshop. We are also planning on working more directly with major theme camp organizers to help prepare their camp leads for handling situations they may come across in camp.

3. Besides regional/international Burns, has the Zendo Project had any success connecting with retail/EDM festivals?
We provide the Peer Support component of Project #OpenTalk, a non-profit initiative developed by Insomniac in collaboration with the Drug Policy Alliance, Healthy Nightlife, and MAPS, with the aim of providing drug and sexual health information and emotional support provided services under one umbrella. We have been collaborating with Project #OpenTalk since Electric Daisy Carnival in 2016 and have provided services and trainings at multiple events since then. The initiative that Insomniac is developing is unique in that it serves as a multi-disciplinary effort to combine different harm reduction services. The peer support services that we provide are just one element of the umbrella of event/festival harm reduction which is under the even bigger umbrella of drug harm reduction initiatives taking place all over the world. Our goal is to continue to collaborate with other harm reduction organizations beyond just the transformational festival setting.

Zendo Project staff members Ryan Beauregard, Sara Gael, and Erica Siegal leading a public training about psychedelic harm reduction at Lightning in a Bottle in Bradley, California (2017)

Photo care of Zendo Project/MAPS.

4. For everyone out there in the trenches doing harm reduction for their friends or attendees, are there any principles that they can take from the Zendo Project and use on their own?
Our mission is comprised of two components – direct service and education. It has always been a priority to educate the public by engaging in honest and unbiased conversations about recreational drug use. We dream of a time when the collective is more prepared to work with difficult emotional and psychological experiences, whether related to psychedelic use or otherwise. The Zendo Project model is one of compassionate presence, acceptance, and creating a container for processing and transforming grief and pain, as well as celebrating life. It is a place of connection where people have the opportunity to be witnessed and held in their darkest and most vulnerable moments. All of the principles and practices that we teach are easily accessible through our website and we encourage individuals to take these practices and apply them to their unique communities and situations.

5. What is the wildest thing your teams have seen in the last year or two? Would you say the volume of Burners you serve is going up or down as the years go on?
I’d say that the wildest thing we have seen is harm reduction being more accepted and integrated as a theoretical framework and practice at events, and how exponentially this grows from year to year. Zendo was born at Burning Man and even prior to the Zendo Project, MAPS worked to help develop harm reduction at transformational festivals like BOOM in Portugal. Transformational festivals have really led the way as far as modelling what it looks like to incorporate services such as the Zendo Project. It is exciting to see bigger event and festival producers begin to adopt a harm reduction model. The general public knowledge of harm reduction and peer support has also expanded. We have had an increase in the past couple of years of professionals looking to

The general trend at all the events we attend is that our numbers usually increase every year. We believe that this is related to a few factors:

  1. More people learning about and thus accessing our services.
  2. An steady annual increase in attendance at most of the events we attend.

6. How does legalization advocacy and the work that MAPS does collide with the Zendo Project’s goals? Have there ever been big synchronicities or (conversely) conflicts due to the slightly differing goals of the different groups?
Psychedelic harm reduction, clinical research, advocacy, and education are all elements of MAPS mission which I believe are intrinsically linked and mutually supportive. MAPS is currently primarily focused on doing clinical research to help MDMA become a medicine for the treatment of PTSD while also doing advocacy work for substances like MDMA and cannabis. While MDMA and other psychedelics have therapeutic value and potential, it is important for us to simultaneously address the risks of recreational use of these substances. The Zendo Project helps accomplish this through education and direct service. We believe that providing safe environments and support for challenging psychedelic experiences is community advocacy work in action. Providing these services decreases the number of incidence of arrests, sedation and restraint, and unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations. This in turn influences the public view and stigma surrounding psychedelics. The legal and political climate and punitive policies in place do not keep people from doing drugs. As we work toward medicalization of psychedelics and decriminalization advocacy work, we must simultaneously address the fact that millions of people are taking psychedelics in recreational environments. These individuals are at a greater risk without harm reduction initiatives.

Photo care of Zendo Project/MAPS.

7. Besides donating to MAPS & the Zendo Project, how can people who love what you do help you do it?

  • Continue to learn about harm reduction and peer counseling.
  • Encourage festival producers to implement harm reduction services at their events.
  • Sign up for our newsletter via our website to learn about our local workshop events and attend and promote them!

8. Is there music played at the Zendo? If so, what do you play & how do you select the tunes?
We currently don’t have music playing in the Zendo but we have considered having some soft background music like chimes, singing bowls, flute, hang drum, live sound healing to help move the energy in the space. One of the challenges is that music is very personal and so we have opted out until now. Also, there is already so much music at these events that we decided to offer a place of silence, similar to an actual Zendo meditation hall. We may be shifting that up a bit in the future. For the first two years at Burning Man we were located right inside one of the bigger sound camps on playa:  Fractal Nation/Fractal Planet. The Zendo structure shape itself turned out to produce a bit of a sub-woofer effect, so that it was often louder INSIDE the Zendo then outside. That drove people crazy-volunteers and guests alike. We have had a relatively quiet few years since then and we’ve been enjoying that aspect!

9. What is the biggest barrier hampering the Zendo Project’s efforts currently, and what do you believe will be the biggest obstacle to summit in the near-term future?
Funding is still an obstacle, though becoming less so as people really start to see the importance of this work and event organizers see it as an essential service. In the beginning, it was sometimes a hard sell because we were doing something that wasn’t really being done. When people have a new idea that solves a particular problem, sometimes it is hard to see the problem until you see the power of the solution. With initiatives like the Zendo Project, if you build it they will come. Many festivals don’t realize how many of their participants are in distress except in the more extreme cases where people are violent or disturbing other attendees. Once event organizers see how busy we were and the pressure we were taking off of the other emergency service departments so they could focus on their areas of expertise-they begin to recognize that this is a real issue and that money and other resources need to go toward this type of work. Then other organizers and producers follow suit. If you are going to have a medical tent or security at your event, you should also have people who specialize in emotional and psychological support. Just because you can’t see someone’s emotional wound doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We need to move toward becoming a more compassionate society that takes these things seriously and care for one another. This work is labor intensive. In some ways, it’s like the opposite of a Western medicine get in, get out model. We have a “come, stay as long as you would like as long as you would like” model. People will spend hours getting help from a sitter in the space. This requires a lot of staff and volunteers. It also requires that we stay open 24/7. This all costs money. We are blessed to have had the support of our successful crowdfunding campaigns and the forward-thinking festivals we have worked with over the past 6 years.

10. If I could snap my fingers and make it happen, What would your dream event to host the Zendo Project for, be?
Burning Man, of course! ☺ But really, I would like the bandwidth to implement services at all the regional burns. We aren’t there yet but hope to work toward it. We helped get the Sanctuary at AfrikaBurn off the ground over the past 5 years. We are at the point where the local leads are carrying the torch and we no longer need to be there. Although I will miss going to Africa every year, this to me is one of our great accomplishments and demonstrates an effective training model.

Why We Burn: Heavy Meta

(Returning to my Why We Burn series, I wanted to cast the spotlight on Heavy Meta, a majority woman-built/non-American Art Car that will be hitting Hyperborea (a new Ontario Regional Burn) and the playa this summer. When we last spoke with Kevin Bracken, we spoke about Brooklyn, Toronto and Opulent Temple. This time, I’m so pleased to have spoken to his colleagues, a group of kick-ass ladies who are turning this car into a legit metal dragon. Enjoy this discussion about Burning Man in Canada, dystopian, welding & being awesome. And don’t forget to smash the play button on their favorite tunes from Art Cars over the years!)

Interview by Terry Gotham

After hearing from the team that’s behind this Leviathan, I began to grasp just how different the perspectives of non-American Burners can be. While I’ve spoken to non-American Burners before, there’s a lot of good stuff in this chat, not just including the fact that in Canada, you can get high school credit by working on an art car! Who knew\ “the low Canadian dollar” could be used as a reason when you’re completing your Low-Income Ticket application, so all you Canadian Burners who need a little bit of help, take note!

Kevin: We actually have two teenagers who come to the shop regularly, Jackie and Alex. Jackie is indeed completing a high school credit by working on the dragon, and we met her teacher yesterday! The first time Jackie came in, and Alex too, the American in me was definitely anxious, thinking, “If they get hurt, their parents will totally sue me!” However, Canadians are considerably less litigious than Americans, and each of them came vouched for by a different maker space, which put me at ease. On top of that, Jackie has completed a welding course and a workplace safety course, plus she can lay down a nicer weave than I can on the welder! Obviously we don’t let under 19s drink in the shop (the drinking age here is 19.) Finally, considering I went to my first rave in Jamaica, Queens at 15, I thought it would be hypocritical to keep them out just because they’re young.

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Ten Questions With Terry Gotham: Ingmar Gorman, Psychedelic Integration Specialist

(While partying safely is one of the most important parts of the drug experience, the journey doesn’t end when you come down. Psychedelic Integration is critical to taking what you experienced and actually using it to enhance your life. Ingmar Gorman is teaming up with Dr. Katherine Maclean at the Center For Optimal Living to actually teach people in the New York area how to do it. I’ll be taking this class, because it’s one of the only things I truly think makes me a better Burner. You should join me.)


1. How would you explain Psychedelic Harm Reduction to someone at the dinner table on Thanksgiving?
People use psychedelics for all sorts of reasons, spiritual, therapeutic, or for fun. In pursuit of this, the contents of one’s mind or their thought process can be affected in unexpected ways. Many people pursue psychedelic use for this very reason, to learn about themselves, to experience the unexpected, but it’s difficult to be completely prepared for what emerges. Sometimes a person needs support while they’re in this sensitive state. As Dr. David Nutt has pointed out with his article about “equasy”, many activities have potential risks, even horseback riding. So, Psychedelic Harm Reduction is here for people who may be experiencing challenges during their experience. The role of the support isn’t to be a therapist or to “guide” the trip, but to act as a calm reassuring presence that can help keep the person physically safe. Something like “ground control,” while a person is navigating their internal experience. Psychedelic integration can include the therapy that comes after the harm reduction, but that’s another subject.

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Why We Burn: illexxandra

(As the last interview before most of us start heading out to that thing in the desert, I couldn’t be more proud to present this conversation. illexxandra is a Burning Man legend, with performances everywhere on playa over the years, including the coliseum at Root Society, Funky Town, Dustfish, Basshenge, PEX, Kostume Kult, Disorient, Nexus, Burners Without Borders, BMIR, Dirty Beetles/Black 22s, Black Rock Boutique, Tsunami Bass Experience, Pedal Bump, and Brulee, as well as the arts cars the Janky Barge, Icarus, the Bump Bed, A Cavallo, the Dodo, and the Nautilus. She & I were able to talk about her journey as an artist and a woman on and off playa. Make sure to read all the way to the end and don’t forget to check out her new mix for Meso Creso! Interview by Terry Gotham)


Photo Credit: Thomas Egan, http://www.thomaseganphotography.com/

1. Favorite Burning Man Memory?
Gosh, that feels impossible. I remember so many moments, and the years all bleed together. As a DJ, I’ll never forget playing the coliseum at Root Society in 2012. They had opened up slots to the broader community, based on how many friends and fans commented on Facebook in support of a given DJ. Diva Danielle and I ended up getting the most comments, so I got a juicy slot on their big stage. Root Society was where everyone wanted to be. My set went great, but the DJ booth was a mad house. We had my DJ partner DJ Shakey, and my pals Alex and Joanna, and Ganesh the camp’s wonderful sound guy. But then to my right we had a young bearded guy in a shiny gold crown and purple robe who was high on uppers and super psyched about every move I made. On my left was a girl who had followed us up to the booth, naked except for full-body fishnets. Behind me was a super done-up, heavily surgically altered woman and her handler. They assumed I was a big deal because I was playing the hot camp. Halfway through my set, she hoisted her feet up on my shoulders, the rest of her held up by her handler, so that she was totally horizontal five feet in the air. All the while, I’m trying to rock as hard as I can, on one of the biggest stages I’ve ever played on, with high heels on each side of my head, naked people, enthusiastic cocaine kid, and my friends who wanted to socialize and support. It worked out, but gosh was it distracting. As the sun eventually came up, the moon was still clear and large on the horizon. I played a Big Bad Wolf remix, everyone howled at the moon, and all was right with the world. Afterwards, Shakey and I went straight to the BRC airport and went up in a plane over the city for the first time.

These two moments also stand out:

Me Djing on the Dodo to people dancing on the pier from its first year before the galleon

Shakey with gingerbread people at Plug 4 in 2008

So many more stories to tell though!

2. Do you have a day job, or are you able to write “DJ” on your taxes under occupation?
Indeed, I make all my income programming music, most of it in a live setting, most of it at night in bars and clubs and warehouses, and a decent amount of my time on the road. Including hosting karaoke for many years, which I’m very proud of. I have no other sources of support. Although, after reading tarot for many years, I’m moving in the direction of doing it regularly for money. But that’s by choice rather than necessity.

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Why We Burn: Jungle, Mayor of Kostume Kult

(Youth is wasted on the young, but is the playa wasted on the seasoned? Not according to Jungle. One of the most visible, Falstaffian leaders of Kostume Kult, I was honored to speak to him about Kamp Konstruction, Leadership at Kostume Kult, and how the playa has changed since his first Burn in 2007. Interview by Terry Gotham and music by David Kiss)


1. Favorite Burning Man Memory?
There are lots of them. I’ve spent the better part of my time at Burning Man MC’ing where Kostume Kult gifts the gazillions of costumes to the fine citizenry of Black Rock City. That gifting (and helping build the KK community) is the primary driving force for me attending. I get to live out all of the 10 principles, I get to see people transform into themselves v2.0, I get to see smiles a lot and get to interact with lots of folks. I see lots of folks who are friends from NY, from elsewhere & folks I’ve met while MC’ing in prior years. Out of all of the experiences there, the one that is burned into my conscience is as follows:

I pester folks (tourists) to get them to participate, not just watch. One year, there was this guy on a bike. I guess he forgot what he was doing, because he wasn’t wearing any clothing. so I started ‘pestering’. I suggested that he get a costume, perhaps even merely get something to ‘accessorize’ his dick. After a little bit of time with no movement on his part, I began to deal with others. A short time later, however, I noticed him walking down the runway with a smile, wearing a necklace and a top hat. When he got off the runway, I thanked him for participating; he said that he wanted to thank me for ‘encouraging’ him to participate, as he had Parkinson’s and was very self conscious about his shaking; hence, he never gets off his bike. He said that my pestering motivated him to do it, and that he didn’t shake at all walking down the runway. I really don’t recall anything else about Burning Man that year. There are lots of snapshots like that at our runway.

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