My Adventures with an Urban Shaman*

January 19, 2015

By Eliezer Sobel
“I have literally been around the world meeting gurus and teachers, shamans and supposed messiahs and avatars, and yet Gabrielle was the only one who let me into her apartment still in her pajamas. Meaning, she was the only one that let me in, period.”

Greetings dear friends, known and unknown, living around this spinning world of chaos and wonder!

Some of you may remember me from the beautiful, worldwide, virtual vigil we held for Gabrielle on Facebook during her last days. I emerged during that period as a frequent contributor, and mostly played the role Gabrielle had always assigned to me during the 34 years of our acquaintance: to provide a comic perspective, even then, as our collective hearts were being ripped wide open and raw.

I remember questioning myself each time I posted an irreverent comment, such as, “In lieu of flowers, Gabrielle has requested that you make a contribution to my personal off-shore account in the Cayman Islands,” or, “Hey Gabrielle, wouldn’t it be embarrassing at this point if you didn’t die? Give me a call when you get a chance.” And yet, just as I was asking myself whether I was pushing the boundaries of what was appropriate and respectful, I received a personal note from Robert, thanking me for helping to keep the Facebook page light and adding the element of humor, so I felt validated and reassured. As Robert put it at the time, “You are reflecting your relationship with Gabrielle perfectly!”

For from the moment we met, late in 1978, we began collaborating on a weekly Ritual Theater performance in New York City, along with Martha Clarke Peabody, Jay and Amber Kaplan, Melissa Rosenberg (who is Andrea Juhan’s younger sister, and would go on to become a top Hollywood TV and screenwriter, most notably responsible for the Twilight movies, and many episodes of Dexter), as well as Gabrielle and Robert themselves, supported by an assortment of musicians led by Raphael Sharpe.

The role she assigned me, time and again, was to look at my most difficult and painful personal issues and create comedy, art and theater from them. The task demanded that I detach from my personality enough to gain some perspective, which was enormously helpful. Obviously, this process was the precursor to what would eventually become her MIRRORS work, so that many of you around the world have since gone through a very similar process. But we were the original guinea pigs!

Of course, as Robin Williams tragically reminded us, the most comic voice among us is often the one that is suffering the most, and I’m afraid that I am no exception to this rule. My close friends and family have watched me go in and out of severe and extended episodes of depression for decades, and despite the momentary relief and insight I gained from portraying myself as Danny D. Presso in Gabrielle’s Ritual Theater work, depression remains a painful emotional quality I have lived with my entire life that no amount of dancing, therapy, meditation, gurus, workshops, medications or psychedelics has ever been able to fully eradicate from deep within my soul.

In the very early days of Gabrielle’s work, it seemed to me that she may have been under the impression that the 5Rhythms® work should be “enough” for people, and as a result, those of us who were simultaneously seeing therapists or taking antidepressants opted to keep quiet about it, as if it would somehow invalidate the power of her work, or even incur her disapproval. This dynamic changed over the years as Gabrielle grew in her own understanding and humility at recognizing that there can never be a “one-size-fits-all” remedy for what ails the human soul. And actually, even she was getting some “outside help”:

In those early days, Gabrielle, a child of the ‘60s, would herself often use cannabis as an aide to her own teaching. I remember driving to a class with her in New York, and when we entered the dance space, she immediately entered the Women’s Restroom and I could instantly smell the telltale scent of weed.

“Were you smoking dope in there?” I asked her, incredulous, when she came out.

“You don’t expect me to do this work without help, do you?” was her response. In more recent years (but well before her cancer diagnosis), when I questioned her about marijuana use, she told me that she had arrived at a point where she felt she was a much clearer channel as a teacher without using it. She elaborated a bit in an interview I did with her for the Wild Heart Journal in 2000:

“I have to say in support of marijuana that I do feel that it slowed me down. There was a point in my life when I felt like I was on organic speed. I was running from myself at such a high speed, like I was on a high speed chase, and I think that marijuana played a very positive role in that it slowed me down and shut me up and allowed things to brew inside of me that then began to come out. So there was a point in my process where it was a catalyst in a very positive way.

“The problem with us, particularly Western people, is that we don’t entertain things as catalysts. We get addicted to them; we’re excessive. That’s why the Native Americans sat around laughing in the tobacco fields: they knew we weren’t going to use it as some little prayerful paean to Father Sky, but that we would become nicotine addicts and it would destroy us. So that’s the part of us that we really have to attend to—the needy, hungry, insatiable creatures that we can be.

“So it creates a tension in me to even say that marijuana was a positive growth experience for me, knowing that for some people it could be something quite different, a big escape from the real world. We have to know who we are, and what our limitations are, what our tendencies and patterns are, for better for worse. Moderation in all things.”

Her comments bring to mind a conversation we had over lunch, way back in 1984. That night I was going to begin leading a three-day workshop for 12 people, and Gabrielle was going to be presenting at an Omega Conference for 1500 people. I asked her if she was nervous and she was a bit surprised by the question, and said,

“No! Are you?”

“Yes, I am terrified, ” I told her.

“Oh I would never do this work if I felt that way,” she said.

I took her words to heart, and as a result, I stopped leading workshops for several years.

Flash forward to around 2009; I had become a certified 5R teacher, and I confessed to her that I was still just as terrified as ever, before each and every class, and that in fact it had gotten even worse, so that I needed to take a Valium—or two—before showing up to teach. I was expecting her to say something similar to what she had said years earlier, that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this work if I felt that way. But this time she said,

“Well, just don’t start giving them out to the participants, but if that’s what it takes to get you in the room, so be it; we need you to show up and do your teaching.”


In 2008 I published the story of my spiritual quest in a book entitled The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments. But here is something I have never revealed publicly: I asked Gabrielle to write something for the back of the book, and she was more than happy to help. But she was also extremely busy, and as my deadline was approaching, she hadn’t gotten around to it yet, and finally asked me to write something, and said she would put her name to it if it felt right to her. When she saw what I wrote, she said, “I truly could never have said this better myself; it’s perfect!” So on the back of The 99th Monkey, there is a “quote” from Gabrielle Roth, that I wrote, and she approved:

“Let The 99th Monkey be a warning to seekers of truth everywhere: Eliezer Sobel is living proof that the New Age disease of self-improvement is incurable. Thankfully, Sobel’s utter failure to get enlightened is chronicled with laughter, irreverence, insight and raw truth.”

Please don’t tell anyone.

I have experimented over the years with LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and when I first followed Gabrielle out to Esalen in 1985, MDMA (or “ADAM”) was all the rage. It was not yet termed “Ecstasy,” and it was not yet remotely a “party” drug. It was still legal at the time, at least for therapists, and was being used in sessions with clients who would wear a blindfold, listen to music on headphones, and the therapist would serve as a mostly passive “sitter.” My Esalen friends and I took it one step further, and were more apt to use it in small groups, with our eyes open, in beautiful, outdoor settings in Big Sur, California, and we served as each other’s therapists when the need arose, although generally those gatherings were ecstatic love-fests of mutual appreciation of each other and all of life.

In 1994, I went to the jungles of Brazil with my therapist and a small group, with a plan to take ayahuasca every third night for three weeks, for a total of seven all-night journeys. I was completely terrified before leaving, and called Gabrielle for support. Her response was quite simple, easy, and logical: “Well, you know, you don’t have to take the drink when you’re down there, you can always turn it down, and the worst case scenario is you get to have a three-week vacation in Brazil!” Her words calmed me down, and all went well—and I did in fact heed her advice to refuse to imbibe the ayahuasca at one point when I was in a particularly freaked-out state of mind. She had reminded me that yes, there were times when one could “just say no!” (Staccato to the rescue!)

Several years ago, when I let her know I was headed to the hills of Tepotzlan, Mexico, to be administered ibogaine, she merely commented, “That’s heavy-duty stuff. I did it in Big Sur, back in the day. It will definitely shake you up.” That woman, an intrepid explorer and “psychonaut” of the first degree, had been around the block, and paid her psychedelic dues during the early days of her own coming-of-age spiritual quest.

Most recently, I engaged in an experiment with the very cutting-edge of current depression research, receiving seven intravenous infusions of the drug ketamine during a period of several weeks. Each experience lasted approximately an hour, though considering it took about 20 minutes to “come on” and another 20 minutes to “come down,” it really amounted to a 20-minute peak experience of the actual effects of the substance.

Given how many other legal and illegal psycho-pharmaceutical substances I’ve tried over the years, the experience of ketamine was by far the most profound and direct immersion I’ve ever had of finding myself in a Non-Self Awareness of Boundless, Infinite Consciousness, with the ordinary body-mind but a dim sensation somewhere “way down there.” The difficulty I had with it was similar to waking up from a powerful dream: you might be able to recall a few fragments of it for a few minutes, but usually by the time you get out of bed the details of the dream are completely lost. In much the same way, as far out and profound as the ketamine excursions were, they were virtually gone instantly upon re-entry.

The half-life of ketamine in the body is only 15 minutes, and by the time one leaves the office, one is officially “unmedicated,” so whatever benefit the experience has for depressed patients, it clearly occurs on either a subconscious and/or a chemical level. Statistics have shown, after many, many clinically researched studies, that 70% of people with a long history of intractable, treatment-resistant depression, have a very clear, positive, and nearly immediate response from ketamine infusions, which is a remarkable statistic in the world of antidepressant drugs, which are notoriously unreliable, and their results are often not even easy to distinguish from placebos. I know this quite well, first-hand.

I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was nevertheless extremely disappointed to recognize that I seemed to be falling in with the 30% of people who don’t really respond or get helped by ketamine, no matter how profound the individual journeys may be. And this was one exploration of the psyche it was too late to get Gabrielle’s input on.

So that’s where I am today. As I write this, I haven’t danced or moved (or taught) much at all since Gabrielle died, because although it took me awhile to recognize this, I eventually began to see after she passed that I had truly only hung around the 5Rhythms scene for 34 years for three principle reasons:

First and foremost, because of my relationship with her. Gabrielle was my creative muse, my mentor, my inspiration, my cheerleader, my friend, my beloved, my spirit guide and my confidante.

Secondly, it was to be in touch with all of you: such a rich, worldwide community of rarified souls, each uniquely reverberating with such deep love, beauty and an ever-flowing bounty of talent, gifts and generosity of spirit.

And third of all, I must confess that as an increasingly older, married man, it afforded me the closest I might ever come again to physical intimacy with young women, within the safe container of the dance floor. As she often remarked, “This is the closest you’re going to get to safe sex with your clothes on!” In fact, I now suspect that from the very beginning, there was a part of me that was really only ever in it for the “girls,” and on some level that never changed.

And Gabrielle always knew it! She was always tuned into my love life, and would be acutely aware of the focus of my wandering eye, even in a room of 50 or 60 people, and would go out of her way to intentionally assign me to little groups or dyads with exactly the women I was fixated on. It was amazing, uncanny, and very cool. There was one workshop at Esalen that I attended with my girlfriend at the time, and so being on active “flirtation mode” was off-limits, and I remember suddenly waking up out of a haze and wondering what else there was to do while in the workshop!

Gabrielle loved playing matchmaker in those days, although the one time I spontaneously decided to marry a woman I had only just met in one of her workshops, when the two of us called her in our love-struck stupor to give her the exciting news, she responded with some degree of alarm, and gave us clear orders: “Do NOT make any decisions or do ANYTHING for six months.” Thank God for that little piece of advice, for the relationship would in fact be over by then.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Gabrielle who would be responsible for hooking me up with my wife Shari, some 18 years ago. Believe it or not, it was my parents, along with Shari’s aunt and uncle, in what amounted to almost an arranged marriage, like in the “old country.” Gabrielle and Robert attended our wedding, and during the ceremony, Gabrielle got up and offered a blessing, which I share with you here, by way of closing:

“Every morning, wake up inside of the Great Mystery, in the Zero Zone, that place where you truly have NO IDEA who is lying beside you, where you truly don’t know who your partner, changing every moment, really is. And then find out.”

*excerpted from a not-yet existent book of the same title.

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Copyright © 2015 Eliezer Sobel, all rights reserved.
Eliezer’s website http://www.eliezersobel.com

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