Stepping Off the Battlefield: A conversation with Jon Macaskill and Suzanne Lesko on overcoming personal and professional traumatic stress with psychedelics

Two years before Jon Macaskill, a former Navy SEAL Commander, decided he was ready to transition out of the military, he started thinking about what would come next—and his plans seemed to change daily. New jobs, new paths, new ideas, and none quite seemed to resonate with him.

The military, he says, is designed to hand you a mission—a vision—for your identity and the values you carry as a service member. But then, like a uniform, you hang up “Commander Macaskill” and walk away, closing the door behind you. And when the day finally comes, “there’s a feeling of loss,” Macaskill shared in a Beckley Retreats discussion about psychedelics and traumatic stress on June 26. But there’s also “this incredible feeling of almost elation—like you’ve been waiting for this time.”

Looking back, Macaskill says he had spent years wearing armor—both figurative and literal—that had slowly chipped away at his sense of self. “There were times when I was in the military that I was showing up as somebody else,” he said. “It’s really heavy to carry that proverbial armor.”

But when his retirement did indeed arrive, he refused to trade in one armored version of himself for another. And in doing so, eventually, a new, clearer path opened below his feet: teaching. Macaskill, who had recently begun meditating at the time, felt that teaching mindfulness “wasn’t just a career choice” but an obligation to “share these life-changing and life-saving practices with anyone and everyone who [would] listen.”

Coping with transition wasn’t the only hurdle that Macaskill faced when he left the military—but it’s an experience he shares with others. For Suzanne Lesko, a now-retired U.S. Navy Captain who spent 26 years in the military, meditation similarly became a tool for managing and understanding transitions in her life, both big and small. Meditation, she explained in discussion with Macaskill and Beckley Retreats Executive Advisor, Val-Pierre Genton, became a way for her to counter a tendency for “flight-or-fight” behavior.

Sleep and meditation were paramount for this growth, she said: With those tools as your base, “you’re transitioning into this beautiful way of being because you’ve set conditions to succeed.” This translates into success across the board, whether with your family, your environment, or while at work.

Personal growth, however, can take time and work to achieve progress, Macaskill and Lesko both shared. For many people, it’s coming to a point of realization that trauma or anxiety is there to begin with. “Trauma does manifest in the body,” Macaskill said. “And we don’t even realize it.”

Whether for Macaskill and Lesko who faced major personal milestones in transitioning out of the military, or for those working long hours as a caregiver or as a corporate leader under pressure and deadlines, stress and anxiety is a story shared widely and personally among many. The prevalence of these conditions across the board—and what can be society’s begrudging willingness to discuss real, beneficial tools for betterment—takes a toll. Stress-related conditions like depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization, have resulted in the loss of nearly 12 billion annual working days, costing the global economy almost $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. The impact also goes far beyond the professional realm: Those experiencing traumatic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder can face debilitating effects, both personally and across their lives, work, health, and relationships.

Macaskill and Lesko both found relief and reflection in meditation, providing them with a foundation to better understand the meaning and purpose of their lives beyond the military. Psychedelics, too, advanced their understanding of self, ultimately giving them an outlet and brand-new perspective from which to address trauma and stress.

For Macaskill, psychedelics reframed the narrative he told himself about the trajectory of his life—from growing up in South Africa to joining the military. He says that one of the reasons he originally joined the Special Operations military community was to combat low self-esteem. His work in the military, Macaskill believed, would validate his existence. Psychedelics stripped away this line of thinking and reason he’d lived with for years. “I put that ego aside,” he shared. “It allowed me to work through that insecurity.”

Lesko similarly likened her experience with psychedelics to watching her ego melt away. “You’re recreating a new identity … [and] that experience really catapults you into the new version of yourself.”

Much of these experiences comes down to a sense of individual spirituality, Genton explained in response to Lesko—a form of healing that can border on mystical for many people. “It’s a bit like looking at the stars,” he said. “It does something deeply grounding.”

Growth and new ways of understanding that come from psychedelics and other wellbeing practices are also drawn from a newfound sense of personal alignment, Lesko shared. “I find that when I am in a place … where I have total dominion over my mind, my heart, my soul, I feel that safety—and that’s what psychedelics do,” she said. “They create that safe space within you as you reflect on your life and the things that come up.”

Both Macaskill and Lesko reflected on the importance of Beckley Retreats’ integration program as an integral step to implementing the insights they gained during their experiences with psychedelics. For Lesko, it was in showing up with her retreat cohort that she learned the “paramount” importance of putting in committed work during the post-retreat integration period

With Beckley, she saw how her support team could guide her towards an outcome of positive growth. “You’re able to really accelerate that healing and the mindfulness and the joy,” she said. When Macaskill learned about Beckley Retreats, he admits that he was initially unsure—even anxious—about delving into psychedelics. He felt that psychedelics were on a path that came with a level of historical stigma—but the team at Beckley supported him, putting his mind at peace by addressing his anxieties and concerns alongside him. “The people who were there during the retreat to support [me], they put me at ease. They put my mind at ease.”

Macaskill is far from alone in starting a path to psychedelics from a place of personal trepidation—it’s a story that rings true among many Beckley Retreats participants. According to Genton, our society today finds itself at a tipping point: As destigmatization, curiosity, and acceptance mount, the importance of finding safe, legal spaces to experience psychedelics becomes all the more critical. That’s why Beckley Retreats takes such time and care with the application process, ensuring that each retreat participant has the information they need to arrive at their retreat prepared, both mentally and physically, for what’s to come. “It’s not just about going into the ceremony and partaking in psychedelic therapy. It’s grounding with meditation, breath connection, and … nature reflecting that’s all part of the type of awakening and clarity,” Genton said.

Like all Beckley Retreats participants, Macaskill and Lesko attended a retreat offering that not only featured two facilitator-led psilocybin ceremonies, but also daily mediation, breathwork, and nature-based programming. Beckley Retreats emphasizes a range of wellbeing modalities to equip retreat participants with a variety of tools they need to understand and grow from the insights they may gain during their ceremonial experience.

A pillar of this work also lies in the group environment that Beckley Retreats proudly offers. Participants do not journey alone; they have a built-in community of peers, support, field expertise, and listening ears from day one.

“Trust is one conversation at a time,” Lesko said. “That’s where the magic happens.”