Two weeks after graduating college, I moved into a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn and, by way of welcome, ritualistically dropped several tabs of acid with the twenty-plus residents of my new home.
It was called Harmony House. My friend, Belle, who had left school the year before me, had been living there for six months. “It’s an intentional living community,” they explained. “You should know psychedelics are a really big part of community life. They might not tell you straight up.”
I had never lived in a community house before, and my experience with psychedelics was infrequent and juvenile, but I had a job set up in Manhattan, no place to live, and I barely knew anyone in the city. Plus New York seemed impersonal and aloof to me and the idea of a house filled with people to hang out with sounded attractive enough.
The day I moved in, a white guy with dreads called Levi helped me lift my suitcase up four flights of stairs and gave me a tour of the shared backyard, basement, and kitchen. I pieced together that Levi had founded Harmony House in the eighties as part of a close-knit group of friends. They had managed to buy the property for pennies to the dollar by today’s prices when this part of New York was considered dangerous and undesirable. The friends had slowly dropped away but Levi, now around fifty, remained.
I was given a document called “The Vision” to get me up to speed on the community values and house agreements. It read:
“(Harmony House) is not just a place or a community; it's an idea, a philosophy, a way of life. It's a testament to the fact that when we come together with open hearts and minds, we transcend the ordinary boundaries of the self, leading us to a life that's truly fulfilling as we experience the transformative power of collective consciousness.”
Looking back, this initial document is a good example of what a housemate of mine later called “a bit of non-clarity” that was common at Harmony House. Psychedelics and marijuana were referred to as “plant medicine.” Group psychedelic trips were christened “Journeys.” If an idea or sentiment seemed true, it “resonated,” and when disputes over dirty dishes or unwashed laundry came to a head, housemates gathered for “mindful and nonviolent communication.”
Using the language of spirituality and medicine to discuss everything from household chores to getting stoned imbued the day-to-day goings on at Harmony House with heightened significance. There was no higher calling than the exploration of communal bonds and questioning conventional societal norms.
For many of my housemates, these explorations had been lifelong. A shaggy-haired videographer named Owen told me, “As a little child I worried a lot...I read about Revelation in the Bible...People predicting the end of the world...I worried that the ozone layer had a hole in it and there was going to be nuclear war anytime...(I) started to question things from that perspective.”
Disillusionment with religion was a common jumping-off point for people that ended up at Harmony House. There were several lapsed Catholics, former Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and a few ex-Muslims.
Gabriel, a science teacher who lived down the hall from me, had grown up in a tightly-knit Orthodox Jewish community. “A lot of the religious world resonated with me,” he reflected. “A lot about having morals and ethics and orienting myself to the world through those on some level...But at some point...I didn't believe in the dogma anymore.”
Living in the community offered an alternative for people who were drawn to contemplating questions about life, morality, and connection and who were unsatisfied with the answers provided to them through traditional structures. Talking with old friends for this piece I was reminded of the refreshingly honest and heartfelt conversations that would often take place at Harmony House.
Owen, the videographer, told me, “(When I sought out community living) I wanted to be seen as a good person. I don't know if it was more like the way I appeared or if I really felt like I should be...The first place (I lived in)...I remember seeing written on the wall, “Be Subversive” and I always remember that it stuck with me for a while. It was like a positive thing.”
Gabriel said, “I think the main thing that drew me (to the community) was freedom to be myself, freedom to find myself and explore myself without feeling immediately shut down and having to repress myself to fit in...So many people came and helped me nurture parts of my personality that I was afraid of bringing out.”
While I genuinely felt that the majority of my housemates were sincere and receptive in their spiritual searchings, there was an insensitivity to the casualness with which the mostly white community tried on various cultural traditions. I was constantly coming home to group yoga and meditations in the living room and crystal healing and sound baths in the kitchen. It could be hard not to cringe at the earnestness of the grab bag of cultural traditions flowing through the house.
“Journeys” (read: House Trips) were the most prevalent of these traditions. While they weren’t mandatory, it became clear that participating in these communal psychedelic experiences was viewed as an important component of investing in the shared vision of the community. House members cleared their schedules and tried to get out of work to participate. Many members of the community who had moved out for various reasons returned for these events.
“Whenever a psychedelic thing happened I always showed up.” Gabriel said. “In my mind, It wasn't about the drugs...It was just kind of like hanging out and having fun with your roommates for nine hours very presently.
Journeys were planned about a month in advance. The day before community members began decorating their rooms, setting up lights and tapestries. Shared spaces were given special attention. The rooftop was draped with fairy lights, projectors were set up in the living room, and the floor of the basement was covered with cushions and blankets. Housemates coordinated setting up some rooms with musical instruments and speakers, others with dim lighting and massage tables. Wandering through the house during the Journey felt exciting, like discovering access to a secret mystical space, very different from the mundanity of everyday life.
Psychedelic rituals are used across many cultures as a means of communion with the divine, ancestral spirits, and the natural world. In typical Harmony House fashion, Journeys took aspects of various historical traditions and mixed and matched them to suit their needs.
The events began in the late afternoon. We gathered in the living room and a designated Journey Leader conducted an Opening Circle. They stated intentions for the trip and all the participants answered a few introductory questions about themselves: names, pronouns, experiences with psychedelics, hopes for the experience, and anything to know if things started to go south during their trip. People did not take these prompts lightly and Opening Circles often approached the two hour mark.
Then the drugs were presented and dosed. Mushrooms or acid usually. On one occasion, my friend Lila announced as she was handing out said “plant medicine” that she had slept with them under her pillow the night before to infuse them with “good vibes.”
The group dropped together and then milled around waiting for the drugs to kick in. The next nine to twelve hours were spent talking, dancing, playing, cuddling, watching the stars. On my first Journey with the house, I spent hours banging on a floor drum with my palms while two housemates I had barely exchanged words with up to this point fiddled around with a guitar and a keyboard. At some point, two other housemates wandered in and rapped spoken word poetry over our clumsy beat. I remember being awed by their linguistic dexterity and thinking we sounded incredible.
Another time I spent most of the trip laid out with crayons and glitter under a set of disco lights my friend had set up in my subleased room. We covered the floor in sheaves of poster paper and collaged intently while rave music blasted from the hallway outside. Later that night, we sat by the fire pit in the backyard eating a hearty soup and homemade bread while someone neither of us had met before confided the details of a failed marriage and shook with sobs.
As trips wore on into the early hours of the morning, the atmosphere often became more liquid. Some people supplemented the drugs we had dropped in the afternoon with ketamine, MDMA, or whippets. Those feeling more in love and connected felt even more magical, those already feeling tense sank into deeper despair.
Gabriel said the best Journeys he had at Harmony House felt “incredibly meaningful...more magical than anything I'd experienced before.” He paused and laughed. “A more cynical read of that situation would say, and I've heard people say this, that they're using psychedelics to brainwash you. I don't think that’s fair, like you choose to take psychedelics or you don't, and you always have to be responsible for your own safety.”
Participating in communal psychedelic experiences has the potential to allow individuals to transcend the boundaries of the ego and connect on a deep, soulful level — just as The Vision states. The sense of unity and interconnectedness that arises can be transformative. But in an environment so doggedly enthusiastic about their benefits it can be easy to overlook the ways that overusing these drugs (or plant medicine, take your pick) can hinder daily functioning and cause a skewed and isolating sense of reality.
After nearly six years living at Harmony House, Owen confided he had come away feeling pretty negative about living in community. “To connect with the group on this super deep level in my earlier years I...thought that that was a good thing. We just give our whole self and we connect on a really deep level. Then we'll understand each other and then everything will be okay. And then more and more it was like it was not happening.”
The lack of connection Owen ultimately felt living in community had changed his outlook on society and how to go about connection in his life in major ways. “I spent a lot of years really trying to make it better, to make it more equal, to sacrifice myself for the good of a group. And then I changed. Recently I’ve wanted to stop rebelling against everything. That urge to rebel is, in many ways, the need to isolate yourself and be superior to other people. Just distance yourself from others...And I don't want to isolate myself anymore.”
Owen’s frustrations resonated with me. It wasn’t long before the constant dialogue about “consciousness exploration” and “purposeful self-growth” began to grate on me, and I moved out a few months later.
Did people really believe we were building an unconventional Utopia, free from the learned judgments of a narrow-minded society? Or was it mostly a delusional excuse to carry on with fun drug parties while calling it self-growth? The language distorted more than it clarified, and I wondered if even the most committed members of the community could say with conviction what it all meant.
When I talked with Gabriel for this piece, we hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. I learned he had just recently moved out of Harmony House and settled into his own one bedroom by Prospect Park. “I think community is more complicated than just kind of coming around allegedly shared values.” He said. “I was struggling to find a deep sense of belonging and commitment.”
So many aspects of religion, philosophy, and society grapple with the principle that this deep sense of belonging and commitment to others is what imbues a life with meaning. I was often cynical about the efforts of Harmony House to compel its members to care for and connect in ways that felt artificial or forced. And yet at its core, the endeavor is incredibly admirable. While for me and the majority of Harmony House members, the community was a stopping point and not a sustainable lifestyle, I’m grateful for all it offered me along life’s journey.