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How a U.S Army Ranger Captain Found Healing Through Mindfulness and Psychedelics

Neil Markey, co-founder and CEO of Beckley Retreats, talks about how psychedelics in combination with mindfulness practices are revamping healing for veterans

Sara Russell

Beckley Retreats is a leading science-backed psilocybin retreat and holistic well-being company. And at its helm is co-founder and CEO, Neil Markey. Markey’s profound healing journey via mindfulness and psychedelics began after his time as a captain in the U.S. Army Special Operations Second Ranger Battalion. Neil was deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan before pursuing his MBA at Columbia University. While in school, Markey suffered from depression and PTSD which eventually led him to alternative well-being practices and marked the start of his experiences with psychedelics. 

From Self-Medicating to Meditation

The idea for Beckley Retreats began ten years ago. Markey was in grad school after his service in the army and by status quo markers of success, he was doing great. He was attending a prestigious school and receiving several lucrative job offers. But on the inside, Markey was miserable. He was angry, isolated, and struggling. During this time, Markey started taking SSRIs and self-medicating with alcohol. And although those methods “sort of” worked temporarily, Markey said, “the side effects were worse than the symptoms.”

It wasn’t long after Markey began self-medicating that he met a doctoral student at Columbia University named Home Nguyen. Nguyen was a 30-year meditator and not easily fooled by the persona Markey had created to hide his pain.

“He was one of the first people that saw that I was struggling,” said Markey. “You know, kind of see past my exterior.”

Nguyen took Markey under his wing and taught him how to meditate. 

“And that was the first practice or technique that I found that actually brought some relief,” said Markey. “And through that network of consciousness seekers, mindfulness practitioners, I was able to have a psilocybin experience under a kind of a therapist’s care on the underground.”

That psilocybin experience would be a game-changer for Markey, and would set the course for his life’s work.

The Healing Power of Psilocybin Ceremonies

Markey runs Beckley Retreats alongside his co-founder and mentor Amanda Feilding. Fielding is a global drug policy reformer known as the “hidden hand” behind the renaissance of psychedelic science. One of Beckley Retreats’s offerings is psilocybin ceremonies which include breathwork, mindful movement and meditation. These psilocybin retreats are held in Jamaica and the Netherlands, where psilocybin usage is fully legal. This ensures that everyone knows where the center is sourcing its mushrooms and psilocybin. 

“We can have a certainty around the quality,” said Markey.

Part of honoring access to these psychedelic compounds means being in right relationship with the indigenous communities that have shared so much of their wisdom. Beckley Retreats supports Karuna Therapeutics, which Markey says has a direct relationship with indigenous people. The center also works with the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund in an effort to make sure “we do the right thing to pay homage to people that have kept these compounds alive for so long and make sure that they're getting resources, make sure that we're mindfully approaching this work and we're not putting the the natural availability of these compounds at risk for folks that need them,” said Markey.

Psychedelics can be used for everything from recreational euphoria to treating depression, anxiety, and PTSD. But Markey emphasizes that his retreats aren’t used to diagnose or treat anything. 

“We're not legally allowed to,” said Markey. “So all of our programs are for personal, professional and spiritual development—helping people become more empathetic, more creative, kinder and more connected. With that said, people have stuff, right? We're humans.”

Solely addressing the rational mind isn’t always enough to create lasting change in the body, according to Markey. And psilocybin may be able to access some of that “stuff” that traditional talk therapy alone may not be able to identify or heal.

“You can't convince yourself that you're not in a state of fight or flight, right? The mind doesn't work that way,” said Markey. “So it's these other techniques that are more somatic, that are more body, you know, meditation, mindful movement, time in nature, that they get in and allow the body to heal.”

Markey added that having some of this “stuff” surface to your conscious mind isn’t always easy but it can be beneficial for long-term healing.  

“And honestly, that can be challenging. But then at least once it's on the surface, then you can do something with it as opposed to it being boxed away in the subconscious and it just presenting itself kind of sporadically in your life,” said Markey. “ … You can do something with it once you have awareness of it.”

Progress and Practice, Not Perfection

Health and happiness come not only from the substances we choose to ingest but also from how we integrate the experiences they offer. Integration is critical to lasting change. Markey said that witnessing what people experience during his retreats is “so beautiful.” But how can participants ensure that the beauty of those experiences sticks with them long-term? 

“l get to see people have those experiences. But then the thing is, how do you maintain that?” asked Markey. “ It takes work. These experiences will fade. A lot of this programming, that habitual nature of us, it's deep. So you’ve got to keep working on it.”

Part of the work that Markey suggests as a post-psychedelic integration is meditation.

 ”In my opinion, [meditation] is the base. And everything comes from this self-awareness and this presence of being,” said Markey. “If you can, make that a daily practice. I think the more the better.”

But if you really want to alchemize your experience from a passing trait to a lasting state, Markey recommends getting outside.

 “We are in relationship with nature. We're meant to be in nature,” said Markey. “But we've actually destroyed nature to create all these things that don't have that same life energy in them. They're not living. It's different. A tree is different than a concrete block, and we need to be in relationship with that natural world more.”

These practices are rituals versus one-and-done cure-alls. One retreat, as life-changing as it can be, will fade without intention and repetition. It’s more like brushing your teeth—in order to see the benefits, you need to work consistently.

“It's a daily discipline. If I look back to where I was ten years ago, without a doubt, I'm happier. My relationships are better. I'm more at peace,” said Markey. “ ... But if I stop doing the work that I'm doing and stop putting in the effort, you'll revert. So it doesn't end, it's a daily way of living.”

In the end, each choice you make that prioritizes your mental health adds up. But believing that these choices will result in healing can require some self-trust.

“I think it's more of a lifelong journey for us. Trust yourself to guide yourself along these types of experiences,” said Markey. “No one will be able to ever tell you really what's going on inside of you better than you right in there. So take the time to look around.”

Sara Russell is a relationship coach and the host of the Trends w/ Benefits Podcast.

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