By Brad Dunn —
Neil Markey served with the U.S. Army Rangers, the premier light infantry unit and special operations force, in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011. After coming home, he enrolled at Columbia University’s Business School in New York City, where he excelled as an MBA student, but began suffering intensely from PTSD. His road to wellness began with a professor who perceived his internal struggle and invited him on a mindfulness retreat.
Today, Markey is the co-founder and CEO of Beckley Retreats, which offers immersive therapeutic programs built on meditation, clean eating, nature, breathwork, and psilocybin ceremonies. He recently shared some of his experiences with PTSD, his introduction to mindfulness, and how he and his team designed their psychedelic-based retreat model at Beckley.
When did you first realize you were suffering from PTSD?
When I got back and went to grad school in 2012. That was my low point. That was when the bottom fell out. The brotherhood was gone, the mission was gone, I was going through a divorce, and I just felt like everything at the business school was about money. I became very disenfranchised. I remember being angry at my peers, because they all had this lightness for life — while I was just struggling. I took different SSRIs and sleeping pills, but nothing helped. I did well in school, I looked put-together on the outside, but inside I was spiraling. I was in a crisis.
How did you find a way forward?
I took a course called “Mindfulness for Business Leaders,” taught by Dr. Home Nguyen. I don’t know, I just felt very drawn to him. He was one of the first people who saw through my thick exterior, and saw that I was really struggling. He had started his MindKind Institute, which offers mindfulness courses and short weekend trips to upstate New York. He invited me on one of these, and I really responded to it. Then he asked me to help run some of the programs.
Was that your first exposure to meditation?
Actually, the first time I saw someone meditate was in Afghanistan. The Rangers worked with SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, and we looked up to them. They’re the cream of the crop. If you kicked ass as a Ranger, then you might rise up to Delta. Anyway, before an operation, the Rangers would blast intense music in the ready room, they’d be loading magazines, putting on their kits, you could smell the testosterone. One time I had to deliver something to the Delta guys. I walked into their ready room and they were sitting in chairs, meditating, being quiet, totally still, just getting themselves together mentally. It was the first time I’d seen that. And even though they were like superheroes to us, I still thought, “Yeah sure, but isn’t that kind of a waste of time?” Keep in mind, this was a while ago, before mindfulness became a performance-enhancement thing for athletes and others. It definitely left an impression.
How did your interest in meditation take shape after joining Dr. Nguyen’s retreats?
I embraced it completely, I knew I needed it. So I did an 8-week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program. I did multiple Vispassanas, the 10-day, silent meditation retreats. Then I got my teacher’s certification at Jefferson University. I wanted to become a teacher and be able to share these practices with others.
You joined with Amanda Feilding and the Beckley Foundation to launch Beckley Retreats in 2021. One of the aspects that distinguishes your program is the 4-week prep work before the retreat, where you encourage participants to make lifestyle changes, such as cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, limiting screen time, spending more time outside, meditating, hydrating. Why is this important?
We just want you to start thinking about your mind-body alignment, and try to break some of the habits that keep you in a fight-or-flight mode and cause havoc on your central nervous system. Most of us live somewhere in the fight-of-flight spectrum every day. We just encourage people take care of themselves, to settle their nerves a bit and their chemical-dependence cycles. Our addiction to screens is the worst. The more hooked you are on these behavior patterns, the more resistance you’re going to have to the work and the psilocybin sessions.
We also use the prep period to establish group dynamics. This is very important to our work. We create large groups at first, then break them down to smaller groups, to the point where people are checking in with each other regularly to see how they’re doing with their positive habits. This way, there’s a community spirit already in place when they arrive at the retreat.
Are these lifestyle changes intended to become permanent?
Yes, 100%. Our programs rely on positive wellbeing habits, which we start building as a lead-up to the big doses of psilocybin. Psilocybin puts your brain in a more malleable state. If you’ve built some momentum around positive new habits, then you can really lock them in with the psilocybin. We still have a lot of research to do on this, but there’s no question you’re much more likely to have a lasting outcome if you’ve done the prep work.
The mind’s malleability is one part of the psychedelic effect. What about the mystical experience?
I think that can be profound by itself. It can give you that “whoa” or “wow” moment, to feel connected to something bigger than you, to experience the divine. But I think you can get a lot more out of it if you do the prep work and the post-integration work. The Western psychotherapy, the habit-forming approach in conjunction with the mystical experience. If you just do the mystical experience, I think you’re leaving a lot on the table. There’s this window of opportunity to make big changes. I think this is what a lot of the industry is missing. We believe it’s critical to long-term outcomes.
You use natural dried mushrooms, which means variability in psychedelic effect between strains, as well as potency levels between mushrooms in the same flush. How do you manage that? And do you have a preferred strain?
There’s a ton of variability, for sure. And I think this gets lost in most people’s understanding. There’s a massive difference in experience between taking a Ghost strain and a Golden Teacher strain. They are, to me, worlds apart. And for the type of work we do, we like to stick with Ghosts or Trinity strains. Penis Envy is another one that has a good punch. Horrible name, though.
Yeah, that one probably needs rebranding if it’s ever going to go mainstream.
Right, we can’t exactly send out a press release saying: “Beckley Retreats Now Has Penis Envy.” But you know, name aside, it’s a good one.
How do you determine dosages?
It’s a discussion between the lead psychotherapist and the individual, and it’s a function of the person’s weight, previous trauma, their current level of anxiety. For first-time users, if there’s any nervousness, we go on the lower end, 1 to 1.5 grams. You’ll see that it’s not that scary, and feel ready to go larger. Ultimately, we do want you to go larger — 2.5 to 4 grams — because we want you to punch through and reach ego dissolution. That’s where the profound insights come.
Can you describe your screening process? What do you look for in deciding whether someone is appropriate for the retreat?
We look for mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, recent suicidal ideations or attempts. We make sure the individual has a support network of some kind. We look for medicine contraindications, but there are only a few. We take a pretty conversative approach. Also, we don’t take people who are on SSRIs, not because it’s a big health risk, but because we think it interferes with the full benefit of the psilocybin. We want people to have the most beneficial experience possible.
Bad experiences must happen from time to time. How do you manage that?
Actually, we haven’t had many bad experiences at all. But safety, for sure, is the number one most important thing. We have very strict protocols around the psilocybin ceremonies. We always have at least two people who are completely sober. We always have the same number of male staff on hand as male participants. We have hosts outside the ceremony who regularly check in. And most importantly, we only hire facilitators who have done this, not dozens of times, but hundreds of times. They know what to do. But again, bad experiences are very rare. If you get the set and setting right, psilocybin is exceptionally safe.
How would you describe the difference between your program and treatments at a ketamine clinic?
I think doing the work in groups really matters, and is a big benefit to the cohort model. Some of ketamine clinics are moving toward group therapy, but most are one-on-one sessions. The group work helps drive home that spirit of connection, that we’re not isolated individuals, we’re part of a connected collective life. That’s where the healing happens. That’s why the indigenous people did it in group settings. We think being in nature also matters. Of course, some people don’t have the time or resources to go to a retreat. But if they can get to a clinic and have a one-on-one ketamine session with a trained therapist, I’m a big supporter of that.
Time and resources do seem like obstacles for many people considering a retreat like yours. How can you address that?
Unfortunately, Jamaica is the nearest place where psilocybin is legal. But next year, we’re planning to test a ketamine retreat in the United States. Same approach, but instead of two psilocybin ceremonies, we’d do two ketamine ceremonies. This would cut down on travel costs. We also believe ketamine will be one of the first psychedelics that insurance companies decide to cover. So, if we can prove that our model has better outcomes than day clinics or mail-order treatments, then our method would be most effective treatment possible.