How psychedelics have inspired Whole Foods founder John Mackey

For John Mackey, popping into a Whole Foods while he’s traveling elicits a twinge of nostalgia. “It’s a little bit weird,” says the founder and former CEO of the empire, who stepped down in 2022 after 44 years at the helm. 

“I don’t feel relief,” he says. “I don’t think I really feel sad, either.” Instead, explains Mackey, who recently stopped into Fortune’s New York office to discuss his new memoir, The Whole Story: Adventures in Love, Life, and Capitalism, “It’s like a child. When the child is grown up, I still love my child. But the child has its own life, its own destiny. And I’m really proud of how it’s grown up and how it’s how it’s leading its life.” 

In his book, Mackey, 70, details the birth and early life of the company, from its humble hippie beginnings in an three-story Victorian house in Austin, Tex., to its phenomenal growth into a chain of 540 stores across the U.S., U.K., and Canada, purchased by Amazon for $13.7 billion in 2017. 

“This was my last gift to Whole Foods Market,” the Houston native says of his tome. “The idea being that this is our story, and not just this big corporation—that it didn’t start that way. It has a history and a personality.” Writing it provided personal closure for Mackey. “I got to relive a huge chunk of my life,” he says, adding that he also decided to write the book because he wanted “to inspire people.”

As for what inspired the entrepreneur, the list is long—and psychedelic drugs, which make several appearances in the book, are high up on it. 

“People could get the wrong impression that I was tripping all the time, but that’s really not accurate,” he says. “It was always a spiritual thing for me.” 

Turning on and Tuning In

Mackey counts on one hand the times he’s done psychedelics and recalls how each one was a revelation—starting when he dropped acid with friends at 19, as a student at Trinity University in San Antonio. “It knocked me off my life path” of becoming a doctor or a lawyer at the behest of his mom, he recalls. “I had an awakening to the fact that there’s a deeper spiritual reality … I started reading Eastern religions and Eastern thinkers.” He began studying philosophy at the University of Texas, “seeking the meaning of life.” 

Several years later, while high on MDMA (aka ecstasy or Molly) at a New Age gathering in Austin, he recalls, “I realized—and I’ve never forgotten—that love is the most important thing in life. There’s just nothing that compares to it … And so that caused me to want to create a more loving culture and Whole Foods.” Next came devotion to the New-Age bible A Course in Miracles, getting seriously into meditation, and, decades later, after reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, going on a guided MDMA-psilocybin trip to help Mackey through the transition of leaving Whole Foods. 

“I got over some relationships that had been damaged that I was able to heal up. And it was a very, very smart thing to do,” he says. Mackey also became committed to breathwork, the yoga-rooted practice he had started exploring back in the 1980s, which has had a similarly deep impact on his psyche. 

“The Whole Story: Adventures in Love, Life and Capitalism” is John Mackey’s new book.

Courtesy of John Mackey

“Breathwork is a very simple, safe way to have a transcendent experience,” says Mackey. “People don’t realize that just by breathing in the right setting, you can have a deeper connection to your soul.”

Other epiphanies for Mackey fall under what he calls “food awakenings.” The first was in 1976—after moving into a vegetarian co-op, adopting a mostly vegetarian diet, and establishing his first health-food store. Another came in the early aughts when he went vegan, in part inspired by PETA and other activists targeting Whole Foods for working with a supplier involved in foie gras production. 

“It was a process,” he explains of his move to veganism. “I was reading all these books—The Suffering of Animals, Dominion: The Power of Man, tons of others—and a thought began to pop in my mind, from deep within my being, that said, ‘Why aren’t you a vegan? Why are you killing animals? Why?’ And it never left. It just got stronger as time went on until I realized that I just knew that it was the right thing for me personally.”

Enter Love.Life

Now Mackey’s excited to share his revelations with the rest of the world through his newest venture: Love.Life, a brand of wellness clubs that will offer, among other treatments, meditation, breathwork, and psychedelic therapy—as soon as that’s legal. 

“Our first one will be in California. It’s not legal there yet, but it’s just a matter of time,” he says. “You know why? Because the science is pretty clear that a combination of psilocybin and MDMA is incredibly effective against PTSD.”

Love.Life “is a continuation of my own personal, higher purpose in life. It’s part of my own hero’s journey,” he says, lamenting the idea that most people don’t see a doctor until they are sick, and that our medical system generally “just treats symptoms of chronic diseases.” 

Mackey’s idea is to create “one-stop holistic health membership clubs,” the first of which will open July 9 in El Segundo, Calif. On offer will be a panoply of treatments and activities geared toward wellness worshipers: a fitness center including Pilates and yoga; a spa with massage, facials, wraps, peels, cryotherapy, infrared saunas and hyperbaric oxygen chambers; and three pickleball courts, as Mackey is a recent convert. 

“The very first time you play it, you will have fun, as the threshold for enjoyment is at the very beginning,” says Mackey, whose other fitness go-to is long-distance hiking—a passion that’s only grown since completing the Appalachian Trail (twice) and the Pacific Crest Trail many years ago. “You’re immersed in nature for weeks at a time, and your your heart rate changes, your consciousness changes,” he says, not to mention that “a lot of my best ideas come when I’m out on a hiking trip.”

Love.Life will also have a medical center staffed with physicians trained in both Eastern and Western modalities. “The vision is, ideally, people will join, we’ll take them through a battery of tests so we can establish a baseline health,” he says. “The average person has no idea if he or she is very healthy, because the doctors say ‘you’re doing okay,’ but we want to know exactly where you are.” Test results will be used to create a precise, personalized health plan. “If they need to heal, we’ll help them heal,” Mackey says. “If they’re looking for max performance, we can get them to max performance. If they’re aging baby boomers, we can help extend their healthspan and lifespan.”

Finally, there will be a health-focused restaurant—which will not be plant-based but “plant-forward,” something Mackey explains as a sort of compromise.

“Love.Life opened a vegan restaurant already in L.A. and it failed,” he says. “By offering a plant-forward menu with the option to add on high-quality animal foods that are responsibly sourced for a higher level of animal welfare, we’re being inclusive of our wider membership community and their dietary preferences. While we deeply value the plant-based community and I personally will always choose to be an ethical vegan, we need to meet the market where we find it, in order to have a successful business.”

Mackey’s aim is to grow the first Love.Life location into a chain—one that he hopes will do for doctor’s offices what Whole Foods did for supermarkets. 

“People that are young don’t have any idea how bad supermarkets were. They were horrible, and people hated to go in them,” he says. That’s why, for the first few years that Whole Foods existed, people would come in and be blown away. 

It’s the reaction he’s hoping for with Love.Life.

“People are going to say, ‘We’ve never been in a place like this, this is really cool. How come nobody’s done this before?’ It’ll be obvious, retrospectively, that it should have been happening.”

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