by Anne Lyons
Jess Grotfeldt is an acupuncturist, community healer, ceremony leader, and the founder of Luz Eterna Retreats, which provides psilocybin healing spaces for women, by women. In her work, she is a vessel and a bridge; her commitment to the plant medicine path has connected her to many people across the world, across generations. She has served as an ambassador of the psychedelic mushrooms for almost thirty years.
Before it ever became a psychedelic journey, Jess grew up surrounded by her father’s artwork, which had “a lot to do with shamanism and the thin veil between what is perceivable by the eye and the spiritual realm…figures in repose, separation of the spirit from the body. There were often books about shamanism. There was always talk about healing plants.”
The beginning of Jess’s LSD explorations coincided with her father’s cancer diagnosis. “It was then I started thinking more deeply about plant medicines and spirit realms, wondering how to help my father.”
During this time, Jess discovered a community of curanderos—healers—in her hometown of Houston, Texas. Working with a teacher who specialized in psychic surgery, she was introduced to different plants and ways to work with their various medicines.
As time passed, Jess carried on her hero’s quest in the illusive New York cityscape, quietly working in plant medicine ceremonies while pursuing different career goals. When her father’s illness resurfaced, she left the city to take care of him, attending every single chemo and radiation appointment. In search of healing answers, she found a Qi Gong master and started learning under his tutelage, not even realizing in their first sessions that he was blind. This fact moved her, she shares, “There’s something about energy, about energetic medicine. There [was] something happening here.”
As her father’s health worsened, she witnessed his energy, mood, and life force improve with herbal medicine and acupuncture. This inspired Jess to pursue a master’s degree in acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, but she’d eventually realize she wanted to do more than heal people’s joints and physical ailments.
“These plant medicines have been used to help people for millennia. These plants are here for a reason, to heal us.”
STARTING OVER & THE BIRTH OF NEW TRAUMAS
Back in New York after her father’s death, she shares, “I was going through trauma and had been doing a lot of grieving. I was in a very toxic relationship with a partner of ten years which resulted in some heavy abuse. I left under the advice of a counselor. We made a plan, and I moved away to save myself.”
In Arizona, Jess began again, starting an acupuncture practice as she attempted to open herself back up to life.
“One night, someone broke into my house and attacked me in my bed. I was able to fight him off, but after that experience—combined with what had happened with my partner—I internally broke and became so lost.”
She was diagnosed with PTSD and showed up for many different healing outlets such as therapy and acupuncture, but kept experiencing suicidal ideations, going as far as to create the plan [to end her life]. “I just couldn’t live like this,” she remembers.
At the time, she had friends working at an ayahuasca center in Ecuador who invited her to try the medicine saying, “it could help you regain yourself. We see miraculous things happen to people.”
THE GIFT OF DESPERATION & THE GRANDMOTHER SPIRIT
“I was desperate, so I went down to Ecuador and had the most transcendent experience of my life. 12 days with a group of about 27 people—three ayahuasca ceremonies, two San Pedro ceremonies, and one ayahuasca/San Pedro sweat lodge.”
“In my very first ceremony, the most miraculous healing of my life took place. I met the grandmother in another dimension. It was just what people say it is, a kind of voice. She showed me my broken heart–the actual broken heart within–[that] had to do with my partner of ten years who violated the deepest part of my trust, my sense of self.”
“The grandmother said, ‘the most important part now is to forgive him. It’s time to cut the cord.’ She then flooded me full of his emotions and I could feel how sorry he was. I could feel all of his sorrow for what he had done to me, to my life. It was so profound.”
When Jess finally allowed the cord to disintegrate back into time, she recalls, “It was as if something in my heart popped open. Water came out from a place below my eyes, a flood of water. They weren’t tears, just water, water, water.”
“I woke up the next morning and I felt completely different. I was so humbled and grateful that this was something that could help people with trauma, with terminal disease–with a lot of things that had been coming up in my life. It felt like this huge circle. I felt like my father had led me to that place in some ways.”
THIS NEW BEGINNING
“I never looked back. This was it for me, this was my calling, to be of service. I became an acupuncturist to be of service because it helped my father so much and now, I’m in service to the medicine, so others can heal in a profound way. It is a debt of gratitude that I have.”
“I was worried my intention would take me back to that dark room with my attacker. What I found was the incredibly benevolent spirit, the spirit of ayahuasca. I’m a firm believer now–having had many different experiences with different and beautiful medicines–that each of them is meant for something special, and each of them is guided by a specific spirit.”
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I certainly wasn’t expecting this incredibly beautiful, kind hug from the universe that said, ‘It doesn’t have to be this hard anymore.’”
At this same retreat center in Ecuador, Jess stayed on and learned how to support ceremony. She shares, “It was a beautiful gift, not just to be present during other people’s healing, but to be there with the shamans, the most incredible medicine family full of integrity…supporting them in ceremony, learning about the sacred fire, learning about the water prayer, learning about all of it. Learning how to support someone going through a really big moment was profound.”
THE NEXT WAVE
Upon reflecting on this new wave, the psychedelic renaissance, Jess recognizes the upswing in trainings and services. Without denigrating any program or institution, she believes her own experiences were invaluable, “I am glad that I could have learned in such a thoughtful way from the traditions and lineages I witnessed.”
Through her community in Ecuador, she met a group of women working together called Mujeres de Luna. “A consortium of women working together is very unusual,” she notes, “To be able to sit in ceremony with just women is amazing. I am very grateful for the experience and remain very inspired by them.”
As Jess decided what to do next, a friend reminded her of the deep connection she’d always had with the sacred mushroom. The idea to hold psilocybin ceremonies was born and they traveled to Mexico in search of learning and guidance.
LEARNING TO TEACH & THE CREATION OF CEREMONY
“It takes willingness and a lot of work,” Jess says. Eventually, she traveled to Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca, Mexico to observe and study traditional Mazatec leaders. Following this experience, Jess invited a group of women from various countries and cultures to create a merging of souls, a unified effort for an expansive, beautiful ceremony.
“I invited all of these amazing women I met from different walks of life… an African woman from Bena whose family carries Iboga medicine, a sacred fire keeper from the ayahuasca/San Pedro tradition from Ecuador, a Finnish medicine singer, and a Mazatec curandera from Mexico.”
“The idea was [similar to] the thirteen grandmothers or the Mujeres de Luna–to bring us all together in this beautiful moment in time. There are so many powerful women–their voices—working through the medicine. We learn as much from each other as the guests who are there to transform and learn from us. In some ways, it is holding two tight circles. It’s interesting to create a communicative link between women from different walks of life working with different medicines and it’s so beautiful to watch women share.”
“What is created is beauty and love and power.”
“I realized that my true calling was to connect with people from different traditions and to work with women.”
In her journey, she says, “I learned so much about how to keep people safe by doing it the traditional way. I’m a student of theirs—of all my teachers. Yes, I sit with them at the front and I’m grateful that they allow me to be alongside them, but I’m not them. I’m still a student. We’re all still students.
WHICH MEDICINE & WHY?
Jess prefers to work with psilocybin for a number of reasons, one of them being “its sustainable nature. It can easily be grown by individuals or safely harvested in nature because of its rapid growth cycle whereas the popularity of ayahuasca is decimating the vine, which grows very slowly and only in very specific conditions.”
“It is my personal opinion that there are times when you really need ayahuasca, but oftentimes, you can achieve similar profound results using high doses of psilocybin, which is more sustainable.”
“It has very few drug interactions unlike ayahuasca, which requires a very strict diet and screening process for specific contraindicated medications.”
Psilocybin is something “we can all grow ourselves,” she says, “I always like to call it ‘the people’s medicine.’ I’m drawn to psilocybin because of its plasticity, because of its newness, it has the spirit of children. That’s what they call it in Mexico, ‘Los Niños Santos,’ and we need a new creative new energy right now to come out of what’s happening in our world.
“I believe that’s why mushrooms are making themselves known in the world: to help us all through this crisis. The medicines are coming forward to teach us the lessons we need to learn in order not to destroy ourselves and the planet.”
“Gratitude is the main driver for my work. I am here to serve the medicine, I would not be where I am today with the happiness that I live. Without these medicines, I would not be me. [They have] given me so much meaning and the capability of opening my heart and extending my hand to others… I can barely even talk about it without breaking into tears.”
“Gratitude is not even a big enough word. It has given me everything.”
“I’m so grateful that we’re in a time where people have access to these beautiful plants and a chance to heal from profound trauma, or just touch what it means to be in contact with the divine.”
“When you’re in [psychedelic] states, you feel it when you come out. You feel how it changes the contours of your relationships with people around you. When love is the first thing that you’re thinking about, and kindness, and tenderness. The world changes.
Gratitude informs my work and my life. It’s not just when I’m in ceremony; it’s every aspect of my life, every day. It has changed the way that I relate. If I can forgive my attacker, if I can forgive others, if I can give to myself again, if I can seek peace and understanding, then what else is there?
STARTING ON THE PATH
Jess encourages beginners “to get to know whatever medicine it is that you want to use, start to understand why people use it traditionally, and formulate an intention of what you’re doing. Intention is probably the most important part. If your intention is just to know the medicine, then be clear about that. But the more intention that you have, the more you’re going to get out of it. I understand people use it recreationally but use it with intention in that way. If you’re going to get together with friends and dance your butts off, do it with intention.”
“Intention is the most important part.”
As a women’s community leader and psychedelic ambassador, it felt necessary to ask what suggestions she can share on the important topic of integration work following ceremony.
“Before my retreats,” she shares, “there’s a lot of talking about what to expect and what [you] want to be working towards. I take a long inventory of their lives, their backgrounds. It’s interesting, I use a lot of the same questions with acupuncture. If someone is coming in to work on trauma, then be really thoughtful about the moving parts of this traumatic experience.”
“Give yourself time to be entering a sacred space to invite in healing. You are creating your own framework.”
Sharing circles also provide support within the container. “I love working in groups,” she says, “because women teach other women. One woman sharing her story with you and you sharing your story with her is medicine in and of itself. Creating that community is huge for me. We take time getting to know each other to create trust in [the] environment, trust in the medicine, to be prepared to open up. If you’re not prepared with the integration process, then you can’t do the work.”
“Make a practice out of building yourself towards this moment. Have a journaling practice, learn breathwork techniques, connect to community, arm yourself with information, and be very honed into what you’re trying to do.”
“I don’t believe that integration looks the same for everyone. I show [people] what I believe is helpful and afterward, you really have to be in contact [with others]. People need an extended period of community contact. Some of my groups have weekly ongoing psychedelic meetups with the same retreat guests. They’re still meeting, they’re still friends relating for a while.”
She advises people to “journal about it. You need to look back on what you went through, review what you saw. See how its unfolding. I’m a big believer in the writing part. If you have journaled leading up to your journey, you then have that record.”
“Don’t just slip back into your old life. Don’t go home and immediately quit your job. Don’t immediately get a divorce.”
“Make subtle small changes. Take time, take it easy. Be gentle incorporating one thing you learn at a time.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTEGRITY & ACCESSIBILITY
“One of my hardest lessons [has been] that not everybody who works with plant medicine in line with integrity.”
“There are people out there who are saying that they know what they’re doing when they don’t, and they don’t care, or it’s about money, or it’s about their ego.”
“You hear horror stories about different shamans who were touching women while they’re under the medicine. People really need to know what they’re getting into and who they’re sitting with. With so many people now in the field, I think it’s really hard for people to know who to trust.”
“People who truly want to help others with medicines aren’t going to cut you off because of the price. I have people who come to my retreats who don’t pay at all, and then women who can pay end up covering the others who can’t. It’s a more diverse group. I believe that’s another important kind of mirror for our world; diversity is important—not just people of different skin colors or from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“All of it has to be available to all. There’s a gatekeeper now, a boundary of potential mainstreaming… in some ways, it seems like it’s turning into something for rich people of privilege.”
“There are many different aspects to this, but I am a firm believer in spirit. I want to connect to people in a very spiritual way. That’s not what everyone else is doing,” she acknowledges, “If you want to do in a fancy retreat center somewhere, fine, but there need to be places within reach for people to have access to the medicine, maybe grow it themselves, but people need to do more research. They’ll need more resources to understand what they’re getting themselves into.
THE WATER PRAYER
“It is about longevity. I think that’s the really big takeaway over this last year: we need people. We need each other. Covid-19 is teaching us that even more now. We really need each other.”
When asked about connecting with different medicines during this continued state of the pandemic— the loss, grief, and isolation—Jess shares, “For me, it’s about the water prayer. It’s about flow and flexibility, how there is time, always time. Water exists in so many ways: There’s the drip in the cave that creates the stalactite. There’s the tidal wave that destroys the village. There’s a time for extreme force; there’s a time for stillness. When water goes against a rock, it flows around it—it doesn’t insist on its own agenda. For me, it has been about learning to flow and not insisting on an agenda, to deal with what comes up, not to get stuck, not to stagnate. When water stagnates, it becomes fetid.”
She ended this reflection on the water prayer by suggesting this idea:
“Allow yourself the grace to just be with what is and flow. You need to listen to your heart. Be kind. Be loving, really be it.”
“It’s about [offering] kindness to myself in flow. I don’t have control. I’m a control freak. I love control and I haven’t had any [this year], none of us have… I think of the water and again, I just keep coming back to connecting to each other in ways that matter… in honest ways that matter.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
To read the full story visit aseriesofbeginnings.com.
It includes Jess’s plans for the future and upcoming projects, her recommendations on valuable playlists and inspiring literature, greater detail of Jess’s powerful history, and a number of other beautiful imaginings Jess shared during our conversation.