On Traveling Companions in the Psychedelic Theatre

Dale Pendell’s On Traveling Companions is one of the most eloquent and insightful passages on psychedelic play to have been written. The particular phenomenology that he describes is among the most empathetic and magical experiences one can undergo. In the text, Pendell describes a nature-laced imaginal in which two people embark on a period of play together. The passage is quoted here in full:

Parts of our work must be done alone, other parts in a group. For certain operations you will need a traveling companion.

The traveling companion is not someone you find as much as someone you recognize. Maybe she changes herself into a bird, hops up onto a tree, then changes herself into a cat and leaps back to the ground in front of you. If you can change yourself into a squirrel and beat her out to the end of a slender branch, consider that an auspicious sign.

Maybe then she will change into a boa, at which time you must change yourself into a monkey, leaping from branch to branch. If then you find her in jaguar form, up ahead of you and waiting, at such times you should remember.

Catch some glimpse of the many times you have traveled with her in the past: the many shape-shiftings, the jungles passed, the plains traversed and veldts crossed. The teachings exchanged. The dangers shared.

And the laughter. Much laughter (Dale Pendell 2009, 47)

When I first read this, my own Traveling Companions began to suddenly dance around me and the sense of play overcame me. I relived the recognition, the playful chasing and the becoming-animal, and an enormous sense of love for my companions welled-up. This essay is written, not to take the poetry out of the experience at hand, but in order to celebrate one of the most magical ways of social bonding we have at our disposal; the play of the Traveling Companions.

From the start Pendell understands the Traveling Companion as one mode-of-being in the psychedelic theatre. A mode with its own particular functions and environment that delineate it from either being alone or in larger groups; the different social dynamics will elicit distinct behaviours and outcomes. Furthermore, I would argue, the Traveling Companion also differs from other forms of partnership. For example, in the absence of an implicit hierarchy like a client-doctor relationship in psychiatric one-on-one sessions.

The essay will aim at producing a description of the Traveling Companion as a mode-of-being-on-drugs, paying particular attention to the possibilities of its role socially. This will be achieved by examining how it differs from other modes, primarily psychiatric ones, and how the experience itself functions. Then finally, the implications of the Traveling Companion will be discussed as an example of an effective method for generating community.

At the beginning of the second paragraph Pendell describes the initiation of the companionship, in a second-person narrative (henceforth a reader-companion is described here to refer to the second person). The initiation relies, we are told, on a recognition between two people (as opposed finding one another). However, what does this mean? The distinction between find and recognize appears to indicate a lack of prior intention in the latter. In other words, the experience is an unplanned, spontaneous occurrence. This is, of course, contingent to what is being recognised between the two potential Traveling Companions however.

What is it that they recognise in one another that allows for the spontaneous Traveling Companion mode? It is safe, I think, to assume this is not simply the recognition of someone else’s identity, otherwise the Traveling Companion might be understood as a type of greeting. Whereas this doesn’t preclude the mode-of-being of being enacted at a meeting, the actual duration of the experience belies a much greater recognition. I would suggest that what they recognise is the presence of the other in the play imaginal and vice versa. In other words, the recognition is not to do with identity (e.g. belief or culture) but their shared perception of the play mode that allows for the experience of the Traveling Companion.

The manner in which the characters test their shared imaginal is explored in the text. Pendell describes a friendly chase, to and fro, that acts as, firstly, the confirmation that they are sharing the imaginal and, secondly, that they are playfully matched for one another. “Maybe she changes herself into a bird, hops up onto a tree, then changes herself into a cat and leaps back to the ground in front of you. If you can change yourself into a squirrel and beat her out to the end of a slender branch, consider that an auspicious sign.” Indeed, the sense of play, which acts as the motivations of the Traveling Companions, pervades the whole passage.

One of the most striking elements of the text is the change of setting in the characters’ play. It begins with the companions becoming-animal, which to begin with are largely woodland creatures, but soon the setting becomes a more dangerous jungle, and they become boas and monkeys. The change of setting is an interesting point of analysis; what does it tell us about this particular mode-of-being? That the journey leads to somewhere more adventurous appears to be part of the playful chase. The process of playing with one another as Traveling Companions through changing scenes provides a deeper knowledge and understanding of one another.

Indeed, within the passage, it leads one Traveling Companion in to a deeply emotional reflection about their playful relationship. The female Traveling Companion waits up ahead in the shape of a jaguar. The powerful image of the South American Jaguar is notable in itself because of the important role it takes in some traditions as a spirit guide. This fact is testified in the passage by the very fact that she waited up ahead, leading the way and guiding her Traveling Companion; roles that appear to be interchangeable in the to-and-fro of their play.

However, the presence of the jaguar plays a dual purpose in the text. It is a catalyst for an experience that takes the reader-companion out of their immediate phenomenal experience. “Catch some glimpse of the many times you have traveled with her in the past: the many shape-shiftings, the jungles passed, the plains traversed and veldts crossed.” Interpreting the role this episode takes in the text tells us much about this mode-of-being, especially in regard to its social function and how it may be delineated from top-down psychiatric forms.

There is certainly some argument that the events described have a perceivably strong psychotherapeutic component. For instance, the companions travel deeper in to the jungle until a memory is retrieved and relived, which in some ways metaphorically mimics the psychotherapeutic method. This would give the jaguar a particularly archetypal nuance, which would, not doubt, please the Jungians among us. Furthermore, in terms of therapy, it could be describing the healing of interpersonal relationships. However, in the context of recognition, it might not be appropriate to see the jaguar’s effect in psychotherapeutic terms.

While Pendell’s descriptions certainly belie a therapeutic quality, the experience is described without any explicit mediation other than the partnership. Simply put, the Traveling Companion mode-of-being is not mediated through a third agency i.e. a psychiatrist and neither does it happen at a predetermined time (i.e. on appointment). The danger of removing the context of experiential spontaneity in the jaguar’s interpretation, which is central to the recognition between the Traveling Companions, is it removes the possibility of this mode-of-being in the first place.

Moreover, I would argue, institutional psychiatry often aims at dealing with the mental health issues as symptoms of an institutionalised modern society. In contrasting the Traveler Companion with the psychiatric mode, one discovers the ability of the aforementioned one to achieve the same ends as the latter, but instead, in its very functioning, it alleviates the influence of the cause, as opposed treating the symptom. Therefore, the Traveling Companion is not only a method to create community that is not institutionally mediated, it also devalues the need for establishment therapies.

Pendell’s characters have not embarked on their play without any explicit intention to find something; it is not a psychiatrically-mediated experience. While the aforementioned psychotherapeutic benefits may hold true in reflection, and interpretation, the partnership is not cognizant to any problems that require therapy. And this very mode-of-being contributes to the effective prevention, as opposed treatment, of the problems. The jaguar’s second role is likely, therefore, to be a literary device for contributing to the description of the Traveling Companions.

In this sense, the change from woodland to jungle would appear to indicate that their relationship has reached a greater intensity, complexity, and understanding. In other words, new worlds are created, new social bonds formed by individuals, ones that are not enacted according to top-down social roles, determined externally of the pairing. It is more sensible, therefore, to understand the jaguar-triggered memories as an illustration of the benefits of entering in to the Traveling Companion mode-of-being.

According to the descriptions given by Pendell, the Traveling Companion mode establishes kinship through the sharing of knowledge (the teachings and dangers), though shared personal experience in the play of their imaginal realm and, moreover, it reaffirms the bonds you may have already created through travel, without recourse to imposed social roles. Simply put, the Traveling Companion functions through a shared, non-heirarchical experience between two people, who establish the strength of relationship through play, in this case through the Traveling Companion’s particular modality. What is revealed by the mode’s social function, which is so brilliantly anticipated by Pendell, is the potential for strengthening social bonds and fostering an alternative community to that dictated by State mechanisms and institutions.


Pendell, Dale. Pharmako/Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poisoned Path. Berkeley. North Atlantic Books. 2009. Print

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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