A trip to better management skills?


More and more Israeli senior executives are discovering the benefits and perils of mind-altering drugs.

The substances described in this article are illegal in Israel and their use, even in a controlled manner, may cause physiological and mental disorders.

"About three years ago I turned 50 and decided to give myself a present, "says Eyal, a senior executive at a global corporation. "I took a month off from work and decided to go on a two-week retreat with a famous shaman in Peru - to encounter all that I thought I would be and hadn’t fulfilled. When I arrived, I saw no white people, except me. A tubby, pleasant person took me to a hostel where people from all over the world had already gathered - all business people who want to connect with themselves. For some of them, this was not the first time.

"The next morning, we set off by car and by boat down the river. Six hours later, we reached a nature reserve. There, for 12 days, we ate very little and drank liters of herbs. Each of us had a single cabin in the jungle, and there was almost no contact with the other participants. The goal was to work on yourself.

"Every two days, we participated in a ceremony. We would sit, evenly spaced, in a circle around an altar with stones, candles and various objects, such as a fan made of plants which the shaman used to banish evil spirits. An elevated silence reigned. The shaman brewed ayahuasca tea for each of us, and his assistant sang ceremonial chants reminiscent of Hindu mantras. He was the only one allowed to speak or sing. His English was broken and he sang in local languages or in Spanish. The feeling was like that of a temple and a holiness unspoiled by anything from the world I came from. As the days passed, the connection to the jungle, nature, to myself and my higher self, led me to me understand once more what’s important to me, what’s important in general, the place of the other people in my life, my mission, and the mission of the organization I head.

"I came back nine kilos lighter, and with more compassion, attention, understanding and wisdom. But everything felt noisy to me. It took me weeks to get used to the excess verbiage that characterizes us all. In the jungle everything moves slowly - there’s no diary, secretary or clock. When there’s no time dimension, looking inwards is more significant. Suddenly the crazy race to get things done made no sense. Only after a few weeks did I manage to reset, and I realized what great gifts I had received.

"People have told me that my ability to listen has increased, that I'm don’t shout as much. The level of tension at the organization has gone down. I have sparks of new ideas that seem to come out of nowhere but are actually my brain rewiring, connecting experiences and insights that I just hadn’t given enough time before to assimilate.

"I was sitting in an executive management meeting, in the most splendid room on our floor, when suddenly the memory of the ceremony came to me, and I had a burst of compassion for all those present - how hard it was to chase after results, the need to stand out and excel in front of others. I just loved them. I had never used the word love in a business context. I felt that I’d received a gift to see them beyond their suits and their facade."

Along with Eyal are many other Israeli managers, some very senior who, when they need to get real answers on important managerial issues, don’t turn to a rabbi, guru or psychologist. They take psychedelic drugs.

And they’re not alone. After Steve Jobs and Bill Gates revealed, decades ago, their experiences with consciousnesses-altering substances, their use has become routine in Silicon Valley, with tour companies specializing in organizing high-tech trips to the jungle and back. It turns out that, in recent years, Israel, too, has developed a vibrant psychedelic scene at the highest levels. Senior executives, women and men, from the military, academia, high-tech and the legal, health and education systems - take such drugs, emphasizing all the while that these aren’t recreational and not just for fun. They are the best way, they claim, to improve management and leadership skills.

It should be noted that the names used in the following interviews are pseudonyms.

Dana, Human Resources Manager

"The workload today on CEOs and managers in senior positions is huge in terms of the quantity and quality of decisions, external oversight, pressure from above, from below. The wear and tear is enormous - and Covid-19 has altogether taken it to an extreme," says Dana, a human resources manager at a large company who has been using consciousness-altering substances for several years. "Anyone willing to relax a little, to surrender themselves, and to listen to themselves, will do things much better, and help themselves and the organization.

"As a human resources manager, I recommend it to anyone who wants to make a change in their life and is willing to take responsibility. I come to each session prepared, as if for a work meeting, with a notebook and agenda. I have topics and issues and questions I’ve prepared in advance and I come to get answers. However, this is not something that I can bring into the organization - not only because of the law, but because of the responsibility. Although I’ve handled it safely, I’ve also seen people who have undergone difficult experiences and have become very frightened. It takes courage to leap into the unknown. You put yourself in the hands of the therapist and disconnect from physical and sensory reality for hours. It's a considerable self-surrender."

What happened when you got back to work?

"I became a better person, and, as such, a better manager. It lifted layers upon layers of defensiveness off me. It brought joy into my life. I’m liberated. When the coronavirus pandemic happened, I was like a beacon for the organization, I ran things without fear and out of s sense of joy. Just as our education system needs to change, management must also become more flexible. We need a change of consciousness, and this is exactly where the medicine comes in. (NOTE: "Medicine" is a local nickname for psychedelics. -- D.F., N.G. and G.W).

Dana isn’t the only manager whose experience of dealing with Covid-19 was very much affected by consciousness-altering substances. "I had to close offices in Israel and abroad, and lay off 80% of my workforce," says Micha, owner of a tourism company. "But we went through the process without any arguments or shouting, without people whispering in the corner, and with a maximum of cooperation and honesty. I approached the coronavirus situation with a maturity I hadn’t had before. Psychedelia was for me a central tool in viewing the person who had to be fired, to look past their eyes. Instead of getting depressed after firing so many people and closing branches, I wanted to learn how I could evolve from what happened. It was exceptional."

Micha's first experience with psychedelic substances was 20 years ago. Since then, he has had 15 more experiences. "I realized that if you want to make a quantum leaps in consciousness, not slow progressions - psychedelia is magic. But it’s important for me to warn you that these substances should not be taken without a guide. There are bad players and charlatans in this world. It should be treated with reverence. It is a very dangerous tool."

Psychedelic substances (from the Greek words delos - revealed - and psyche - mind) have been used by man for thousands of years. Evidence for taking mushrooms and herbs for ceremonial and therapeutic purposes dates back to the Stone Age. During the second half of the twentieth century, they found their way into research, from there they seeped into popular culture, and then, in the mid-1960s, were declared illegal. The three most common, including among the interviewees in this article, are MDMA, hallucinogenic mushrooms and ayahuasca. Those in the know refer to these as "medicines" because they are used to treat trauma, addiction, depression and anxiety.

MDMA is a powder, taken in capsule form or dissolved in water, which causes a feeling of euphoria, increased self-confidence, inner peace, and empathy. It is used to treat trauma, but a large dose of it can create hallucinations, physiological and mental disorders and even brain damage.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms (the active ingredient is Psilocybin) are eaten in dried form and cause floods of emotion, ego-lessness, and philosophical understanding. At a ceremonial event, the shaman begins with a prayer, and then begins to chew them slowly, swallowing, and then lying down. The effect wears off after about seven hours. Mushrooms are used to treat depression and anxiety, but can also cause anxiety.

The third most common ingredient is ayahuasca (the active ingredient is DMT), which is consumed as an herbal blend brewed in tea as part of a special ceremony. A week before, the participant must undergo purification - following a vegetarian diet, abstaining from alcohol and sex. During the ceremony, subjects drink three cups of the tea. At first, they feel nausea and tingling, but later they experience visions and revelations, calmness, emotional flooding and changes in self-perception. The plant is used to treat depression and addictions.

To be clear, these three substances are illegal in Israel for possession, use and trade.

"This is a group of substances that we do not fully understand," says psychiatrist Prof. Shaul Lev-Ran, a member of the National Council for Mental Health and co-founder of the Israeli Center on Addiction. "Despite all the research that has been done, there is still a gap between the knowledge of what they do to you biologically and the long-term existential psychological effects. Another thing is for sure - context for using these substances is very important, if not critical."

Unlike other compounds (drugs or medications), psychedelic substances do not have a permanent and uniform effect. Ritalin, for example, will have the same effect on every person, no matter if they take a pill in a crowded elevator or on the beach. Psychedelic substances affect each person and situation differently. The key principle in this case is Set and Setting. 'Set' is the subject’s psychological variables: personality, expectation and intention; 'Setting' is the physical and social environment at the time the subject takes the drug.

"Acute effects and psychotic states - anxiety, distress - following the use of psychedelics are very dependent on the set and setting," says Prof. Lev-Ran. "The more awareness and support the person receives in the acute phase, the lower the chances of harm. But we don’t know if there is an increase in psychotic breaks in Israel due to psychedelics use, because this hasn’t been examined specifically. There’s more openness to the matter and a whole league of therapists already involved in it. This is the Age of Aquarius for psychedelia."

"We give you what you need"

There’s no doubt that the experiences of using psychedelia can be different, but for many executives who have had the experience, it is an extraordinary leap upwards.

Ami (65), owner of a large international company, has been using psychedelic substances of various types for about 15 years. "The turning points that came about as a result of controlled use of mind-expanders dovetailed with the turning points that happened to me as a manager and as a businessman," he says. "I went through a process of change from demanding, authoritarian leadership to attentive, enabling leadership. My old way of management was rooted in the fear that without me, the business would collapse, that everything was up to me. As I became more attentive to others, it was much easier for me to trust people and give them space to express themselves. I started to enjoy managing. Fear was transformed into a passion for action. I moved from the role of predator to that of someone who enjoys the food."

"Understanding that there’s more to be understood is the whole story," says Asher, 75, founder of the Israeli branch of a global infrastructure company. "I sense people, feel them, I’m controlled and patient even in difficult situations."

Being controlled and patient is good, but an executive in your field has to be a killer.

"I was competitive for years. But it turns out, you can be competitive even without negative motivation. You can win by going with the flow of your environment, without terrible stress, and it's even easier. To gain control, you have to relinquish it, and let the process be in control."

Micha, tourism company owner

If it seems as if everything the interviewees who have experienced psychedelic drugs have to say sounds like generic New Age speech, you're not mistaken. One thing the executives we spoke to could vouch for is their inability to describe in words the intensity of their experiences. They say it’s a built-in gap that's almost impossible to bridge. One tried to explain that, "There's no comparison between a trivial sentence like 'During a psychedelic trip I learned to accept myself' and the total and immediate physical sensation of that self-acceptance." The difference between experiencing psychedelia and describing it, they say, is like the difference between looking at the sun and looking at the word "sun".

"In today's corporate world, listening to the inner voice is an important skill for a manager," says Laura Stone, an American leadership expert and consultant to global companies such as Pfizer and Unilever, in a telephone interview with "Globes". "The mind-body connection has long held a place of honor in the executive development processes. One of the buzzwords in management today is 'psychological safety', the knowledge that your staff has a safe space for self-expression without fear of negative consequences. Using herbs, as well as other tools for inner listening and awareness development, helps users become better human beings and better managers.

"True, consciousness-altering substances aren't for everyone, they don't always give what you want, but rather what you need, but they do assist in rehabilitating ourselves."

On the way to psychotherapy

One of the major contributions to the rise of the psychedelic movement is the book "How to Change Your Mind," written by Michael Pollan and published in 2018. It deals with new research in the field of psychedelics, the connection to 21st century diseases such as loneliness, disconnection, stress, control, FOMO (fear of missing out), etc. The book, ranked first on the New York Times bestseller list has, to some extent, reduced fears about using psychedelics for learning and development.

"How to Change Your Mind" may not have specifically referred to executives, and it was published before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it seems to have only reinforced the central claim: long-service or a pricey academic degree do not necessarily make for better managers in a chaotic world in which no business model or long-term strategic plan can guarantee success. In such a world, managers must be agile, flexible, and - pardon the cliché - able to connect to their true selves, reinvent themselves, listen to their hearts and put ego aside. The main trends in business leadership indicate that, in the coming years, a manager's professional development will be structured around personal development and not necessarily based on attendance at endless meetings, or rote learning chunks of knowledge or a range of methodologies.

The therapeutic effect of psychedelic substances isn't just a buzzword among senior executives. In recent years, psychedelics have been used in Israel for research into mental disorders and are now also finding their way into the field of psychotherapy. Fifteen people have already been treated with MDMA at six Israeli psychiatric hospitals part of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) - a non-profit organization founded in the USA in 1986 to promote research into psychedelic substances for therapeutic purposes. Dr. Keren Tzarfaty, a consciousness-altering drugs researcher, is the local representative for MAPS in Israel. We talk about the transition of these substances from the field of therapy to that of personal empowerment.

"The therapeutic dimension was the way in," says Dr. Tzarfaty. "The goal was to bring psychedelia back into research, which had been halted after the 1960s, and has been resurrected over the past decade. MAPS was the first effort. We started treating PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction withdrawal, and gradually we're entering into research on healthy people. We're examining what it does to caregivers, perfectly healthy people, how it affects their care. It touches on things that are already related to management, such as empathy, compassion, self-care, and burnout. We've just opened the first cohort of a psychedelic psychotherapy program in Israel - a group of 40 therapists with clinical master's degrees has begun one year of training with the approval and support of the Ministry of Health.

"Clinical work with consciousness-altering substances, when taken in a controlled and regulated fashion, has potential to treat psychological damage," she adds. "We've learned from anthropological studies that the impact they have on humans have dimensions beyond pathology, not only trauma, but also helping develop things like intelligence, love, creativity, connection to nature, and to the soul."

The ceremony that took him out of action

Dr. Ilan Volkov, a specialist psychiatrist at the Dr. Tal Center for Forensic Psychiatry and Mental Health Services, a private mental health center in Tel Aviv, shatters the idyll. As someone who has treated a good number of complicated cases caused by psychedelic use, he wants people to be aware of the possible consequences. "I was approached by a patient, a very wealthy person in real estate, who suffered from depression. To treat it, he went to a shamanic ceremony in northern Israel. But he came away far more damaged, and had to be hospitalized with a far more severe depression, as he was no longer functional. He's currently being treated with psychotherapy, but he’s not back to himself. It's hard to know if ayahuasca played a part in his situation, or if what he took was ayahuasca at all, or what exactly ayahuasca is. It makes it difficult for us to treat him."

And truly, one of the biggest fears about drug use in general and psychedelics in particular is the possibility of going crazy and flipping out. We ask Dr. Tzarfaty about it. "It happens, yes," she replies, "It's more common at parties. I don’t know of any such cases in the therapeutic studies. "

In this context, Dr. Volkov divides psychedelia users into two types: "Those who make use of it and those who use it as a magic bullet for treating their mental problems, maybe because they don’t believe in psychiatry, or they’re disappointed that psychiatry didn’t provide an answer. It’s exactly those people who come to it in a state of crisis who could be harmed, because they’ll experience this crisis in an even deeper way. An executive might also use psychedelia as part of a life experience or as part of a mental crisis, with the idea that one night could pull them out of the crisis, which is dangerous. They could be very damaged, depending on the emotional place from which he or she comes to the situation.

"And sometimes the experience itself is good, but then the depression sets in when the change doesn’t last long, and the disappointment is terrible. It's a bit like the depression experienced by people who were in a class or went through an empowerment workshop, returned full of energy to change, but failed to integrate the actual change. The magic is gone and they can no longer imagine what would help.

"Everyone wants a quick fix. It used to be MDMA, now it's mushrooms and ayahuasca, but mental health is a very heavy ship that’s hard to steer. Cipralex versus ayahuasca is like tweezers versus a sledgehammer."

"The older you are, the less likely you are to develop a psychiatric disorder due to drug use, because the brain is more mature," says Prof. Lev-Ran. "And no less important: a significant majority of older users take great care with Set and Setting - they are the heart of the matter. Taking the drug is generally accompanied by preparation and purpose (personal, relationship-related, or developmental - DP and NJ) -- not 'on the fly. And older adults are far less likely to combine different drugs, which further reduces the chance of a breakdown. They’re not some young thing at a party, tripping, smoking joints, taking Ecstasy, and downing shots of whiskey. When you prepare your support and empowerment in advance, the event is less prone to disaster.

"The message is confusing, because on one hand, some say these substances can cause a psychiatric disorder, and on the other hand, they’re are being researched as a treatment for psychiatric disorders. So, what’s important to know is who is better off not using them. If someone has a tendency towards mental illness or anxiety, or a severe disorder that runs in families, it’s best to abstain. These are very potent substances, for better or for worse. It’s also worth noting that alcohol and cannabis provoke more psychotic breaks, but their use tends to be an everyday thing."

And what about the potential for addiction?

"These drugs are less addictive, if at all, on the physiological level. On the psychological level, it’s hard to say. But there are other physical effects that can be life-threatening besides addiction. For example, DMT puts a strain on the heart, and can cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure."

Dr. Tzarfaty clarifies the differences between the use of psychedelic and other drugs: "The other drugs - the purpose for using them is to escape difficulty and pain. In working with psychedelia, the goal is to meet the pain and be guided through it. These are different worlds. What's more, other drugs have the physiological price of addiction and a very high emotional price. With psychedelics, the chances of addiction are very, very low. Working with consciousness-altering substances is an invitation to contemplate and learn from the inner experience, from difficult emotions, from the mystical experiences that are created. It’s not always an easy and fun experience; psychedelia is like a microscope of the mind - you see most sharply and experience most powerfully. But it can also help us discover parts of us that we’re not in touch with - resilience, compassion, optimism, openness, creativity. Brain research shows that the brain forms new connections - different ways of thinking, different perceptions.

"The result is a developmental process that can also greatly affect executives. Until now, they’d managed according to their training and the examples of their predecessors - and then along comes psychedelia and creates an experience that makes them see things differently. Although it’s temporary, the senses are altered for about eight hours and something of the ability to see reality in this way remains accessible to us. And it’s not just a memory or an idea - it really creates new connections in the brain. Managers tend to be disconnected, and psychedelia reconnects them. The managers return to their projects, and instead of meeting subordinates, they instead meet a group of interconnected people."

Nili Goldfein is Deputy CEO of Niram Gitan - NGG Global Consulting Solutions and a consultant to senior executives

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 15, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

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