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Navigating The Psychedelic Wild West
The Importance of Informed Decision Making
It took me a week to recover after a botched psychedelic ‘ceremony’; albeit it was the furthest thing from a ceremony. These days, the word ‘ceremony’ is overused and inappropriately attached to the end of nearly anything psychedelic related. And yet, I don’t know what word to replace it with, but it feels urgent that I figure this out. What exactly did I pay for? It wasn’t a psychedelic assisted therapeutic space, nor was it a ceremonial healing group session, but it included ingesting psychedelics with a group, someone leading, an opening and closing of the space, live music, followed by a group potluck (I didn’t attend the group potluck because I was still deep in my journey). The best that I can do for now, is call this kind of gathering: A hippie trip. Had I known I was paying for a hippie trip, none of this would have occurred because I wouldn’t have attended in the first place. These kinds of psychedelic spaces are not my jam. And, I would have made an informed decision.
For some reason I believed that I had registered for a group psychedelic therapeutic experience. Perhaps it was because the facilitator was a friend of a friend. Or maybe it was because the facilitator is a trained trauma therapist? Regardless, to my surprise, the affair was far more injurious than therapeutic. Part of me is still baffled and confused. Another inner part is gaslighting me. And, yet another part is angry as fuck. The gaslighting sounds like: It was my fault for taking 3 grams, when 2 grams was the recommended dose (even though others ingested 3 grams as well); it wasn’t that bad, I didn’t really get injured; what did I expect for a couple hundred dollars; maybe I missed something in the emails and I misunderstood what the roles and responsibilities were. Anything really to make me wrong and protect them (the space holders) from my anger. Internalizing my anger and anchoring in the belief that I didn’t need anything from them, buffers me from the possibility that they contributed to my psychic injury. It is buyer beware out there, so really, what did I expect.
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I was gaslighting myself because it was easier to stomach than the imagined gaslighting or patronizing, couched in new age bullshit lingo, that might have been shot my way had I attempted to let them know how my energetic and emotional needs were not fully tended to for the healing potential to unfold. All this crazy-making is a form of protection for my inner parts; protecting them (inner parts) from the impact of having been a victim of a poorly held psychedelic container. This protective part is familiar, quick to take full responsibility as a way to bypass naming what was injurious and the impact it had, for fear of being further harmed through denial, attack, or projection.
I was left wide open and immobile, still deep in process with the entheogen, and the space had been closed because the allotted time was up. However, it wasn’t just merely the fact that I was left vulnerably and energetically open but rather, that the informed consent process ahead of time was lacking some important bits. All of which comes down to poor preparation. It is curious to note, as I write these words, I am holding myself responsible for this lack in preparation, not the guide. I do believe in self-responsibility as a guiding value, perhaps to a detriment, therefore, I am not surprised that I am looking at all the ways in which I can own full responsibility for my experience. Thankfully, I am reminded of the ways in which I support my clients who have been harmed by their medical providers during their childbirth experiences and what I often say in response to their internalizations. And yet, here I am trying to own that it wasn’t that bad, that I should have known better, or that I should have been able to do it on my own without a container of support. Let’s not ignore spiritual bypassing inner story that sounds like: What a great opportunity to learn more about holding space; it was all divinely orchestrated. Or the quick to forgive, bypassing my anger story: We are all human, and we all make mistakes. When I hear this inner voice, I remember to call upon my therapist hat and reply with:
You have done nothing wrong, even if you took 3 grams of psilocybin. Of course, you trusted the Guide, you believed them to be skilled based on referrals and review of their trainings. How could you have known that you were signing up for a hippie trip rather than a healing ceremony, you had not yet discerned the difference. And yes, it is true, you do have knowledge about the culture of psychedelics and yes, you have experience of poor space holding, and it is not your responsibility to be the one working harder than the Guide to ensure your safety. Yes, it is true that we are all humans who make mistakes, and their hearts are probably in the right place, and still, you were left injured. Their intention was likely not to cause you harm, and yet, you were harmed by the process or lack thereof. No, the medicine didn’t harm you and no you just didn’t have a bad trip that was necessary to reveal parts of your ego-mind that are in shadow or need healing (albeit that is also going on simultaneously). What you experienced is real. Unsafe containers happen. It is not to be belittled. You are allowed to feel all the mixed feelings you are experiencing. it is important that you voice your experience. There was a lack in relational safety, and because of this lack in relational safety, your inner parts do not feel emotionally and psychically safe to bring this injury forward to the space holders. I believe you.
Thank you, Therapist part.
Discerning the difference between an ego-struggle with the content being magnified by the medicine versus a struggle with a poorly held space, resulting in a lack of container safety, is a key differentiator. This is where it can get tricky because often we think of a bad trip as an internal struggle with the material within the individual psyche, not as a result of the external factors not being tended to well. I was not struggling with what the medicine was presenting; I was struggling with the set.
I knew very soon after I had ingested the psychedelic, that something was lacking within the container. The journey itself was all about set and setting, and my inner Guides were indeed offering some huge teachings. Thus, the psychedelic injury I experienced was a result of a poorly held container for safe journeying. Although, the medicine was magnifying the truth about the space, that in and of itself was not difficult to navigate and would not have resulted in an injury. Rather, what was difficult to adjust to was the sudden closing of the space while still in a state of expanded consciousness and physical immobilization. This is akin to suddenly interrupting a labouring woman while she is in an altered state of consciousness and fully immersed in the experience of labour and attempting to halt the process of labour. This kind of interruption would be injurious and likely result in a medical intervention to facilitate the birth. Why might you ask? Because, the mother went from an expanded state of consciousness, deep in the throes of labour, beyond ego form to navigate the birthing energies, and was shockingly disturbed and disrupted, closing the birth portal due to a lack of neurophysiological safety. In plain English-the mother no longer felt safe to be in this expanded state, and biologically, her body halted labour in attempt to find safety. Often, this results in the need for medically assisted birthing interventions, leaving the mother to repair in the postpartum. My experience was akin to this example of a labouring mother.
I heard the Guide say, if you are still in process you can remain in this space. Remain in this space alone? Who else is remaining in this space? Where is everyone going? What is happening next? Why now? Is everyone else done with their medicine journey? Why am I still immobilized? What time is it? I am not ready to be alone, I am still deep in process, can’t people notice this? My system was flooded with survival stress and I knew that this was not the result of the psilocybin; this was my biological system coming online in attempts to protect me while in such a vulnerable state. It was trying to mobilize my body so I could seek refuge. Refuge was with my husband, who was stationed in our motorhome, not far from where the hippie trip was being held. I yearned for him to come collect me and all my blown open bits. To carry me like a newborn, in his strong arms. And offer the safety of his anchoring presence. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move, but I had to move to find safety. I managed to write the words to my friend: Bring me to [Joe].
The energy was getting frantic in a familiar way, like it does at times during a labour and delivery, when the state is changing or a sudden rush of adrenaline fills the room. My eyes were now open, it was bright out, I was disoriented and my body felt like 1000 pounds. I couldn’t talk or answer questions. I was suddenly being peppered with questions and my left hemisphere was not interested in thinking or translating thought into words. I knew what I needed and where to go to surrender to the medicine-into the arms of safety. I was agitated. And I was frustrated that I was agitated. I was split between realities-consensus reality and expanded transpersonal reality. One part of me wanted this trip to be over with so I could return to consensus reality and find relief. I wanted so desperately to suddenly shift states and regain composure. However, my ego-mind didn’t have the power to switch the off button of a disoriented trip. Fuck. I knew the only way out was through.
My friend walked me to my husband and when I arrived, I collapsed into his arms. He recognized that I was still deep in process and not ‘back’ yet. I sat for a moment, and I mustered the words: Can you turn on my medicine music. Entering the RV, he helped me lay down and joined me for hours, while I returned to the dance of the medicine. Back and forth I went between opening to the medicine and being distracted by the mind. My mind was trying to make sense of what had just happened, all the while, the medicine was still running the show. This push-pull between mind and oneness with the medicine was tiring. Seven hours had now passed since I had ingested the 3 grams, and I was still in a non-ordinary state of consciousness.
Eventually, a pounding third eye pain was gripping me. The pain was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was worried I had broken my brain. My pain tolerance is incredibly high and this was about to take me over my edge. Was this because I was now dehydrated or because I had drunk coffee this morning? Was I being punished? I wanted to roar like an injured wild animal. All I could hear was that initial comment that the Guide had said just moments before I drank and chewed the fungi: This is not the space to work out deep anger or rage out loud, it might be disruptive to the group. If you feel anger, I invite you to sit with your breath and feel the anger. Honestly, that should have been my cue to not go into a healing journey with the psychedelic substance and maybe just ingest 1 gram–that said even 1 gram has brought me to my knees.
I was holding back making primal sounds-something that I am not typically afraid of but I was worried that perhaps it would be too much for the group, who was now most likely sleeping somewhere on the land. Using my breath, like I would in a Holotropic breath workshop, I moved and low-level groaned like a labouring animal, until I released through a purge. Finally, I could rest into the relief that followed, after I had vomited into a 5-gallon orange pail full of kitchen garbage and pissed naked on the floor of our small 1980’s motorhome, in the darkness of the witching hour. I was grateful I had made it through, and grateful for all the Teachings. However, I was not prepared for the aftermath.
The best way to describe the following week is to continue with the birthing metaphor. The integration period after a botched psychedelic trip, is akin to a postpartum recovery after a challenging or traumatic birth experience. When a birth unfolds instinctively and without emergency, the mother usually basks in the oxytocin glow and endorphin high that follows. It is indeed a glorious feeling that I have both experienced as a birthing mother and that I have witnessed as a birth worker. I know it exists, and this state is nourishing and life giving. I also know a similar state can be experienced post psychedelic journey when love bursts open the heart, even after one has faced their inner demons and traumas and come through to the other side. However, I didn’t get to experience the postpartum glimmers after this hippie trip. Rather, I had to work hard to integrate and close my energetic body; thankfully, I knew what to do.
I woke the next morning after a night of little sleep, confused, disembodied, exhausted, and flat. The first thought I had was, what the fuck was that? Followed by, I hope I never have to see them again. If I was not an avid and somewhat experienced Psychonaut (someone who navigates non-ordinary states of consciousness) I might have walked away with a more severe psychedelic injury. I might not have known what was missing and thought that I must have done something wrong, and I might have never returned to psychedelics because this would have left a bad taste in my mouth, premature of any profound healing. At the very least, had this been my only experience, I might have never discovered that there are different qualities of experiences that are indeed healing. The journey would have been incomplete and activating to old wounds.
Container safety is essential, as is relational safety-both; both were lacking.
Indeed, there were a few warning cues that set off my inner alarm bell. Did I listen, no. I could have adjusted my dose in that moment, but I think I was too eager to journey with the medicine that I over road my inner surveillance system, to my regret. I already had a relationship with the medicine. I know my inner landscape. I can navigate this terrain. I am seasoned at facing my traumas and feeling the feelings. And, I have inner guides. I got this – so I thought. I held two intentions, the first was deeply personal about a health need and the second was: please continue to show me how to hold space for this medicine in a humble and reverent way. Both intentions were addressed.
Circling back to moments after I had ingested the entheogenic medicine. I soon thereafter sensed something was energetically off because the space felt porous; as if there were holes in the energetic field. I know the difference between a space that is energetically attuned to, cleansed, contained, and held versus a space that is neglected, porous, and lacking resonance. I have come to understand the difference between these felt senses of the space as one which is held sacred and in ceremony, following protocol and ritual, and one that is held from performance, ego, or lack of experience. Regardless, there was no turning back, and I was in it for the ride now.
Thankfully, I knew how to anchor, and I am deeply grateful for the hand that held mine for the first part of the journey. The simple act of holding a hand can have profound implications. In this case, the hand reminded me that I was not alone, and that I do not have to do it alone. Soon thereafter, I entered the ego-death portal that is all too familiar, followed by an incapacity to move my body or speak. There was no escaping, no leaving, no sobering up, no changing spaces, or shifting about. I was totally immobilized and collapsed, surrendered to the medicine. This state of sinking into the earth as my body shifts from form to floating subatomic particles is welcomed and familiar. However, I know that there is a deep vulnerability that comes with this state.
I had to work a lot harder than I should have for a facilitated group experience. Working hard looks like managing what I needed energetically and physically to feel safe while in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. I’ve done my fair share of navigating these spaces alone, always to learn that set and setting holds a real purpose. The primary purpose for set and setting, a term used in psychedelic spaces, is to provide a safe environment that is soothing and supportive to the body, heart, and psyche of the journeyer so they can relax into the medicine experience. Part of set and setting is to provide a physically safe space along with psychological preparation to ease the mind, and all our inner parts, to embrace NOSC. And to identify any potential risks, mitigate surprise, and build relational safety between guide and journeyer. Both external and internal ‘set and setting’ are to be taken into account. External ‘set and setting’ includes things like the physical space, the people, the music, the atmosphere, and an informed consent process. Internal ‘set and setting’ includes things like intention, experience, fears and anxieties, identifying potential traumas that might surface, medications, physiological risks, ego strength, and readiness to name a few examples. The ego-mind is soothed by information which acts as a precursor to transformation. As such, set and setting is more than just ticking off a check list of ‘objects’ that are required to create a physically safe psychedelic space.
Truly, it is about creating a safe and soothing relational space, not a transactional one.
Transactional is mechanical. We live in a culture of consumption and transaction, far from relational. I would argue that our deepest wounds are relational and a result of our dominant culture of separation. Therefore, a safe relational container for exploring NOSC with psychedelics is critical in supporting the potential for a healing experience to unfold for the journeyer. Unfortunately, not all psychedelic spaces are the same. Some host the most beautiful nourishing safe space in which you can feel like you are being hugged by the womb of the Great Mother whereas, others, are devoid of love all together. They are empty, cold, confusing, dark, and clinical.
How we are held in psychedelic spaces requires the same kind of considerations as what supports a non-injurious birth experience. I see these two spaces as similar. And yes, I have navigated both spaces. I know what interrupts a birth experience and often results in unplanned, unnecessary, or even traumatic interventions. Psychedelic spaces are no different – both induce altered states of consciousness. Tending and attuning to non-ordinary states is a skill that is acquired through experience. Just because someone is a trained psychedelic assisted therapist or guide, does not mean that they know how to navigate the energetics of non-ordinary states of consciousness. This is what we are up against with the rapid influx of training programs for psychedelic guides.
As previously stated, integration is akin to the postpartum period. As such, I was neglected in the psychedelic postpartum state. Another indication that this was not a psychedelic assisted therapy experience, nor a ceremonial healing space. Luckily, I knew what my system needed. One of the teachings that came through in the wee hours, while I was sobbing in pain, was how much my system needs nurturing loving care. It was starving for it. It was as if I was presented with a body of healing waters, just beyond my reach, and in this famished state I tried to crawl to take a sip. I think I managed to bring myself to the edge of the healing waters, because I felt my system drink in the nourishment, even if for only a moment, just shortly before I purged. It was enough of an embodied experience to know viscerally that my system cannot live without drinking from these healing waters. If neglected, I will wither and die in this starving state. The sip that I received was full of compassion and I felt held in a cradled embrace by this essence.
I carried this deep need into my integration process and sought out a community of support. The generous online attention that my psychedelic colleagues offered me was bread to my soul. Even though I bombarded them with messages and phones calls, I was held within a loving container that validated my experience. I felt seen and soothed. A good indication of relational safety. To my surprise, I had a beautiful conversation with a couple of Guides, that I had just met, and experienced a sense of kinship and heartfelt flow of connection. My close friends and family held my story as I wove it together to reduce confusion and gain clarity. However, I knew I needed body work. I needed to be touched back into form to close any energetic portals that remained open. I reached out to a dear witchy woman and asked her to lay her hands on me. Afterwards, my vital life force returned, my eyes lit up, my bowels released, and I felt a sense of returning home. What a relief, and the following two nights I finally rested into nourishing deep sleep.
This brings us back to the initial question I posed: What was that experience? Leading me to the next question: What do we call these different psychedelic spaces? Because they are different, and they need to be defined.
As we enter the era of mainstreaming psychedelic usage that is being touted as the new wave treatment for mental health, it’s important to distinguish the different avenues that one can access for these healing medicines as an important part of the informed consent process. Psychedelic injuries do happen (some more severe than others) and proper informed consent and preparation can mitigate these harms from occurring. Remember, information is a precursor to transformation, a powerful statement coined by Joe Dispenza. Our inner system will buffer and protect itself when it senses a cue of warning or a signal of danger. Entering NOSC via psychedelics heightens emotional, physical, and psychological vulnerability and can easily trigger the inner alarm system causing a person to rail against the experience of the medicine. When the alarm system is activated, even if below perceptual awareness, the inner gate keeper works hard in these incidences often resulting in a ‘nothing really happened for me’ kind of experience. The inner gate keeper is an important part of one’s inner community of protection. At times the medicine can blow this part out of its position which can be startling or shocking to the journeyer, resulting in an increase in anxiety or panic. Keeping this mind, preparation helps to let the inner gate keeper know what to expect, and that it is safe enough to drop its armour, thus opening to the medicine with less resistance. However, this kind of care and attention is not always available.
Circling back to those questions I have been holding, I think I have a preliminary rough draft of some descriptors and identifiers that will hopefully assist others in making informed decisions about their psychedelic engagements. I am sticking with hippie trip to describe what I had attended. Followed by recreational, psychedelic assisted therapy, and ceremonial.
A hippie trip is a group or individual psychedelic journey in which there is someone who has declared to hold space for the group or individual, however, they are not offering any preparation or integration as part of the experience. It might be a friend or colleague. In a way, it is a solo journey in that you are responsible for your trip, and someone is there to make sure you are not physically harmed, and to help you out if you ask – like get you water, help you walk, change the music for you, talk with you if you chatty. There is no expectation or anticipation that the declared space holder will offer you anything more. They are playing the role of a friend or a doula at a birth, for example. A bit of an assistant – some more experienced than others – but not the appointed seasoned traditional and spiritual midwife (healer, shaman, guide, elder) that understands how to work with the energetics of NOSC. You may be physically safe, but everything else is up to you to navigate solo.
A recreational experience is exactly that–a social event. Typically, there is no appointed Guide. Usually this is what people experience at festivals or celebratory gatherings. Generally, the focus is on the external environment, not the inner field. There might be group connection on the substance vs internal self-connection. Generally, the dose is smaller and there is usually some form of play, engagement, or movement. For many, this type of experience might be their introduction to psychedelics. Sometimes there is an emotional release, however, the focus is not to heal rather have fun and connect. Some people might set intentions prior to, but not always.
A psychedelic assisted therapy (PAT) experience is far more intentional and directive than the first two descriptions. This type of journey typically involves a trained Guide or Therapist and might even have medical professionals present such as a nurse and/or medical doctor such as a psychiatrist or general practitioner. The setting differs depending on whether one is working with a legal or an illegal psychedelic substance. The setting might be clinical and cold, or more like a typical neutral therapy office, or it could be in the Guides home or ‘sacred’ center. You might be working with an ‘above ground’ guide or an ‘underground’ guide. What discerns the difference between the two includes the amount of experience and/or education, as well, the psychedelic substance they are working with. Not all psychedelic substances are legal for therapeutic use, and the Guide or client could be charged with possession or the intent to distribute-a risk that needs to be part of the informed consent process. The key factor in PAT is that the client or journeyer has chosen to participate in a PAT individual or group session for the purpose of addressing mental or emotional health concerns and/or for healing from past traumas. Typically, there will be preparation sessions, journeying with the substance, and integration sessions as part of the PAT process. And there is a strong focus on relational safety, ethics, and therapeutic benefits.
Ceremonial medicine journey or retreat is differentiated by the fact that there is a strong focus on healing spiritually and energetically, versus psychologically. These experiences are the furthest from clinical, can be connected to the outdoors and nature, involve spiritual protocols and rituals that often include connection to earth based spiritual teachings. The Guide is someone who has been working with these medicines, usually plant medicines, for a significant amount of time and has gone through an apprenticeship or initiation outside of dominant cultures academia (however, they may hold both worldviews). The Guide typically has and holds an Indigenous way of knowing or holds ancient teachings from Mystical or Spiritual traditions from all over the world. These space holders know how to work the energy of the space using song, drum, rattle, flute, and other non-psychedelic plant medicines. And they understand that the plant medicines that they are working with are intelligent, and they have a personal relationship with the medicine. Often, when we think of ceremonial medicine retreats or spaces, we think of the Jungle and Ayahuasca, or Oxaca and the Sacred Mushroom.
We are seeing an emergence of psychedelic spaces that are attempting to combine these ancient ceremonial ways within dominant western culture by hosting local events. I think of this in the same way I think about the Westernization of Yoga. I am not saying this is wrong, but rather, to just pay attention. Just because someone apprenticed in the jungle doesn’t mean that they have devoted their life to the spirit of the plant medicine, within the context of an intact attachment culture. Therefore, they may not be equipped to hold energetic ceremonial space. Having said all that, there are group spaces that are merging ceremonial practices with the use of Ketamine or MDMA substances because they have adopted the two eyed seeing principle as part of their values, in hopes to provide a deeper healing experience for their clients. The notion of ceremony in and of itself is a huge topic of discussion. I know I merely skimmed the surface of something that is profound and ancient.
By no means am I claiming to be an expert of psychedelic substances, nor an expert of navigating these spaces. I am merely in devotion to these sacred medicines as they have been great Teachers and I hold a strong heartfelt desire for healing to wash through the hearts of humanity. I share from a place of curiosity, insight, and contemplation, not from a place of right vs wrong, best vs better, righteousness or blame.
With that in mind, was my hippie trip experience wrong? Is someone to be blamed or made aware of all the gaps in care? As I come to a close, of this integration piece, I realize what happened: I believed that I was entering a healing ceremonial and psychedelic assisted therapy container because I did not differentiate between these differences. However, what I had signed up for was a hippie trip.
My journey would have been very different had I known how to differentiate between these two. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Nor do I think that one type of experience is better than the other; they are just very different. Do I hold the Guide responsible for this lack of clarity? I am not clear on that yet. Would you? If so, why, or why not? Had I known I was entering the space of a hippie trip, I would not be holding the Guide responsible because I would have understood that I was pretty much on my own (in the same way that I would with my friends and colleagues). The difference however, with friends and colleagues, is that I have established relational safety. A key factor that was lacking for the hippie trip. Without relational safety, I would not proceed with any form of hippie trip.
However, I didn’t have that context ahead of time and I projected onto the space something that it was not, nor was it ever intended to be. On one hand I take ownership for this lack of awareness and newfound insight, and strangely, feel grateful for the experience. On the other hand, could this have been mitigated? I think yes. I hold the Guide accountable for lacking an informed consent process that would have helped the participants, including myself, to discern the difference between a recreational, a ceremonial, a therapeutic, and a hippie trip container. Furthermore, I hold the Guide accountable for neglecting to navigate the space according to what was presenting versus what was in the agenda. In other words, missing to read the energetic cues of what myself and perhaps others, were needing at the time, to ensure the container remained energetically safe regardless of what was initially outlined in the preliminary emails. Finally, aside from a more detailed informed consent process, had I heard the words spoken with sincerity while the container was being closed: You are welcome to remain in your process here, we are still here for you, take as long as you need, there is no rush, we will not leave you, and one of us will be by your side until your journey comes to completion, the psychedelic injury I endured could have been mitigated. These simple relational words can offer deep relational safety-the foundational need for any healing container.
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