The Beckley Retreat: a trip of a lifetime?

The Good Hope Estate in Jamaica (The Good Hope Estate in Jamaica)
The Good Hope Estate in Jamaica (The Good Hope Estate in Jamaica)

I’m sitting under tent canvas, eye-mask on, swaddled like a newborn in a linen blanket. There is a woman singing a Jamaican folk song somewhere in the distance and the air is perfumed with sage and incense. Time and space are abstract concepts and I’m overwhelmed by a deep feeling of surrender. I think I might be sobbing.

Welcome to Jamaica’s Good Hope Estate, a 200-acre former plantation which is now also the home to the Beckley Retreats’ psilocybin programs. Contrary to what my editors think, I’m not here for a Caribbean jolly but rather to experience firsthand the work they are doing to discover the therapeutic benefits of magic mushrooms.

The Beckley Foundation has long been a pioneer in the field. When the rest of the world was experimenting recreationally with mushrooms and LSD in the Sixties, Beckley’s founder, eccentric aristocrat Amanda Feilding, recognised the powerful benefits of psychedelics for healing trauma, creative blocks and treating depression — a potent natural alternative to the sometimes-lazy prescription of SSRIs in modern medicine.

Of course, psilocybin ceremonies have been happening for millennia, from the earliest cavemen to the Aztecs. And while underground versions have been going in the West for decades, what sets the Beckley retreats apart is this reverence for their sacred origins — case in point, all guests are encouraged to describe the mushrooms as ‘the medicine’ rather than a drug. It helps that the retreats only take place in parts of the world where mushrooms are legal, namely Jamaica and the Netherlands, to absolve participants of any guilt around taking part in something elicit.

When I ask Neil Markey, a former US army vet who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now heads up the retreats branch of Beckley, what kind of people I should expect to meet on my retreat, his answer is remarkably simple: seekers. Only when I arrive, they are anything but the dreadlocked, flip-flopped stereotype I have in mind. Some are academics and psychotherapists, who want to integrate psilocybin trips into their own practice, but there are also classical music prodigies, novelists, painters. That the group isn’t hugely diverse isn’t a surprise: the retreats are costly and there is still an element of social taboo around group therapy in certain cultures.

There’s about three grams of it in there, a ‘heroic dose’. I down the thing in one, saluting my neighbour like a space cadet

Arriving at Good Hope, my nerves are a little jangled from the transatlantic flight and I have that first day of school feeling. Its understandable given what it has taken to get here. There’s the rigorous screening process before guests are accepted on a retreat.

I had five lengthy Zoom calls which assessed my mental and emotional well-being, lifestyle and my support network at home. Once you get through the vetting process, There’s also the homework: four weeks of educational materials and tools to work through on Beckley’s bespoke app, from guided meditation to journalling exercises, to prep you for your week at Good Hope.

But it’s only when you get there that things start to get very real, very quickly. There are two ceremonies during the week, interspersed with recovery days, workshops, yoga and one-on-one check-ins with facilitators (therapists, doctors, even reiki masters) to make sure you are feeling supported.

It’s the ceremony days that are the most challenging. Having fasted for six hours prior, you are smudged with sage before entering what looks like a wedding marquee. Except in place of chairs and an altar, there are 11 mattresses, blankets and eye-masks laid out in a crescent shape around a floral mandala. There’s a pseudo stage for the facilitators to sit sentinel over everyone during the journey, playing indigenous music to soundtrack the whole experience.

Once guests have assumed their positions, we’re given a motivational speech about the journey ahead and passed a mug of what smells like ginger tea. It’s been mixed with powdered mushrooms that have been grown for this moment. There’s about three grams of it in there, a ‘heroic dose’. I down the thing in one, saluting my neighbour like a space cadet, and slip on my eye-mask in anticipation of the effects to kick in.

Nothing could prepare me for what came next. Twenty minutes into my first journey, I slide my mask off to be taken to the loo and witness what seems to be the sound from a singing bowl rising up from the floor like an octopus. The lush Jamaican countryside seemed to be undulating around me, flickering in different colours with each song change. It made me feel nauseous and agitated, disorientated and existential (‘Why am I here?’ ‘Have I just been created to suffer?’). I mostly felt very guilty that I was somehow burdening the facilitators and the other cohorts by unpacking my emotional baggage so publicly.

It teased out thoughts and patterns of behaviour that were no longer serving me. It felt like doing five years’ worth of therapy in five hours

While the rest of the group were going through their process (and I mean really going through it; there was hysterical laughter, screaming, singing and someone dancing the flamenco on loop in a corner), I couldn’t face going back into the tent and sat outside the main house as the mushrooms slowly wore off. I also felt, with urgent conviction, I didn’t want to do it a second time. Who would? But after a teary phone call back home to my husband, I caught sight of my children in the background. If I wasn’t able to get my shit together for myself, how would I for them?

I read a quote somewhere that said, ‘No one ever steps in the same river twice’, and the second journey couldn’t have been more different.

Sure, it had the same run-up: mattress, tea, eye mask. The nausea was still there, but it was mitigated by sitting upright and keeping my eyes closed rather than wearing the constrictive eye gear. But the sensation was lovely, like being bathed in warm light. My hips started trembling (no big surprise for anyone who’s read The Body Keeps a Score: it’s the site of your psoas muscle which stores all your physical trauma) and right on cue, my body soon followed. I hate to imagine what an onlooker must have seen: positioned like I was giving birth, a facilitator on each arm holding me up, I shook uncontrollably for an hour like Regan in The Exorcist.

I know you’re asking yourself at this point: why would anyone willingly submit themselves to this? My intentions going into it were fairly fairly innocuous — a sense of curiosity, a hope to feel a little more positive in a world of chaos, and at the very least, a bloody good story for this magazine. In truth, I emerged feeling raw, vulnerable and, well, a bit sad about the things that have happened to me in life.

That said, It also felt like doing five years’ worth of therapy in five hours. It teased out thoughts and patterns of behaviour that were no longer serving me. There’s also the neuroplasticity that comes with going on a trip — up to six weeks afterwards where your brain is in such a malleable form you can rewire it to form better habits and think more creatively. And perhaps most importantly, when we are so fixated on our physical and mental health, here was a space to also embrace spiritual wellbeing. All this facilitated by a fungi that’s existed for millennia? I’d say that’s pretty magical indeed.

Prices for an all-inclusive Beckley Retreat start at £3,790 per person (