Last week I was interviewed on Awaken Atlanta, a breakfast show in the US that covers topics that mainstream media don’t talk about. I was on to talk about, of course, psychedelics, and shared a bit of my experience and answered some of their questions. The show is now available online. You can watch my interview below or see the full show here. Enjoy!

Join Tim and Shannon as they discuss psychedelics. They will be delving into different types of hallucinogens, how they can benefit your mental health, and its long-term effects, as well as hallucinogen addiction. They will be speaking with Alice Smeets, a Trauma Integration Therapist and Kerrie O’Reilly, a Trauma Integration Therapist, and Holistic Health Practitioner. They’ll also interview their John Andrew, a Psychedelic Explorer & Guide.

Set and setting are two of the biggest contributors in how a psychedelic experience turns out. They are arguably as important as the dose and substance itself and together form the context for the experience.

Set refers to mindset; the persons inner state when they take the drug; their frame of mind, attitude and mood.

Setting refers to the physical environment of the experience. This includes for example; the location or room, the company or trip sitter, and the music.

Setting: The Environment for a Psychedelic Experience

This post will look at setting and why it should be considered carefully when planning a psychedelic experience.

Setting is part of the experience

The environment for any experience is the vehicle in which it is received and can actually be considered a part of the experience itself.  As such, it should not be underestimated in terms of how much influence it can have.

Consider how a frame is used to change the experience of viewing a piece of art. Does it change the piece of art itself? Whether it has a frame around it or not, it is the same piece of visual information hanging on the wall. However, it changes how it is viewed and received. It is part of the experience.

Consider some other experiences and how much the environment or method of delivery influences the experience as a whole:

  • The experience of being in a fancy fine dining restaurant vs. eating in as fast food joint. Consider how the experience is different before you’ve even eaten any food.
  • Seeing a band play at a huge festival with thousands of people singing along, dancing and enjoying themselves vs. seeing a band play in a small half empty room with a handful of disinterested people
  • Taking a drink from a nice glass vs. from a cheap plastic bottle

Setting changes set

Setting can also influence the internal state of someone and their ability to do certain things. Imagine you have some work to do that requires your full focus and concentration.

Now imagine trying to do that work in a hot, noisy and crowded environment. Imagine trying to do it outside on a busy street on a hot day.

Now imagine doing that work in a cool, quiet, and distraction free room. Imagine being at home with an air fan to keep you cool, some noise cancelling headphones playing brain.fm, and an accountability partner to check in with at the end of an hour of work.

Do you think you would have the same level of focus in each scenario? Would the results of the work be the same?

In the scenario of a psychedelic session, setting can be considered to help one navigate their journey more successfully. It is like the difference between trying to steer a ship alone and heavily distracted vs. trying to navigate a ship in peace with someone by your side to support you. Which is more likely to get you to your destination?

Setting & Mood

Setting can have a big influence on how one feels. Taking a psychedelic in a club surrounded by many strangers with loud music and flashing lights is going to be a very different experience to being in a room with soft soothing music, low lighting, a comfortable place to lay down and a trusted friend. The second one will promote feelings of relaxation. In the context of a high-dose psychedelic experience this can be very beneficial to help someone let go more fully.

Creating the setting can be considered as creating the atmosphere or the ambience for a session.

Factors to consider when creating a setting

  • Sound
  • Music
  • Lighting
  • Art
  • Items/Decoration
  • Altar
  • Clothes
  • Comfort
  • Heat
  • Airflow
  • Smell
  • Company
  • Tripsitter

Themes to consider

  • Comfort
  • Privacy
  • Peace
  • Security
  • Safety
  • Simplicity
  • Space

Cultural Context

The setting can also include the city or country that you have your psychedelic experience in. Factors include the legal status; could you go to prison or worse for taking a psychedelic substance, or is it totally legal? and also the cultural context; the public opinion and media representation of psychedelics. An experience in New York will be very different to that of one in Peru and again likewise different to that of one in Amsterdam.

When planning a psychedelic experience consider not just the substance and dose but also think carefully about the setting. It is possible to have a meaningful experience on a lower dose if the set and setting are prepared accordingly and the experience infused with a kind of meaning. The effect of setting on an experience is magnified on psychedelics, and as such is worth careful consideration.

How can you increase the likelihood of having a mystical psychedelic experience? A paper by from the Imperial College Research Centre team details four clear indicators that increase the likelihood of a mystical experience:

– Feeling ready to ‘surrender’ to the experience.

– Having a clear intention for the experience.

– Having the experience in a therapeutic setting.

– Taking a higher dose.

 

The model above from the paper, shows that the same four factors, plus being in the company of well-trusted individuals, was protective against a ‘challenging’ psychological experience (AKA a ‘bad trip’).

These findings, based on data from the psychedelic survey project, again show the importance of set, setting, and dose when it comes to the outcome of a psychedelic experience. In particular, they show how these variables can be used to increase the likelihood of having a certain kind of psychedelic experience which the researchers label ‘peak’ – an intentionally secular term inspired by Abraham Maslow’s work – that can effectively be viewed as a synonymous with the concept of a ‘mystical’ experience.

“Mystical experiences, which typically are extremely ephemeral and unpredictable, can actually be catalyzed in a fairly reliable and replicable way with correct use of psychedelic substance (that is, if carefully prepared volunteers, with worthwhile goals and in a comfortable and uplifting setting, are given the right dosage”

G. William Barnard – Foreword to Sacred Knowledge

You can read the full paper online here:
Psychedelics and the essential importance of context

What is a psilocybin experience like? After seeing the popularity of my recent post: What is an LSD experience like? I decided to do a follow up about psilocybin. Psilocybin is the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms and truffles, and although very similar to the LSD experience, it does have one or two differences.

As with the LSD post these were taken from a study which looked at aspects similar amongst people‘s psilocybin experiences. All of these findings were presented in a talk by Katrin Preller which you can view online:
How Psychedelics Can Help Us Understand Social Cognition and Self-Experience.

I think the list provides an excellent summary of common psilocybin experiences.

Subjective Effects of Psilocybin

  • Elementary visual alterations
  • Vivid imagery
  • Audio-visual synesthaesia
  • Changed meaning of percepts
  • Experience of unity
  • Blissful state
  • Disembodiment
  • Impaired control and cognition
  • Insightfulness
  • Religious experience
  • Anxiety

The diagram below shows us which of the subjective effects were felt most strongly under the influence of psilocybin. I have ordered the list above in order. As you can see, elementary visual alterations scores highest, and anxiety lowest.

Subjective effects of psilocybin. From Vollenheider & Kometer, 2010.

Course of Subjective Effects of Psilocybin

This chart shows the course of a psilocybin journey including the intensity of the effects over a timeline. As you can see the peak is around 1 hour in with ‘transient peaks of self transcendence’.

Course of subjective effects of psilocybin. From Preller & Vollenweider, 2017.

The picture trip is a technique that was employed by a pioneer of psychedelic therapy, Leo Zeff. It is done as part of the preparation and also during the psychedelic session itself.

This description of the method is from the book about Leo: The Secret Chief Revealed.

Preparation

To do this exercise you will need to gather some photos before the trip. These photos will form a history of your life. Go back home or get them wherever you are or write for them. Get all the pictures that you can and bring them to wherever you are.

Pictures to Gather:

  • Yourself, one at age two and one every two years thereafter through adolescence, up to adulthood.
  • Two pictures each of your mother, father and any siblings; one when they were young but you can still remember them, and a recent one.
  • Pictures of any other family members that are or were significant in your life.
  • A picture of your husband/wife, or any woman or man who has had great significance in your life. Lovers, current or past. If you’re married, wedding pictures.
  • A picture of a grandparent that was significant in your life.
  • If you have children, a picture of them when they were about two years old, and a recent one.
  • Any other significant pictures. Any pictures with an emotional charge.

As you collect the photos

“I ask them to select the pictures in this manner: Gather them all together—boxes, albums, however they are, and put them in front of you, and start with one. The top one or anything like that.

Pick it up and look at it. Just look at it to see what you experience in connection with that picture. Look at it a little while. You may not experience anything. It’s all right. Put it aside, pick up the next one, then look at it. If it provokes any memories, kinda sit with the memories a little bit, let them go where they want to go. Whatever feelings you have, allow them to be there. Whenever you come across a picture that’s on the list, set it aside in a separate pile. Go through all the pictures you’ve got, every single one of them, doing that. You may have to have two or three sittings to do it.

I ask them to do it no further away than a week before the trip, as close to the time of the trip as they can. I want to tell you something. That really turns them on. When they come they’re in the middle of their trip.”

During the session

A few hours into the trip, when you’re functional and can move around, get up and sit down at a table to do the picture trip.

Start out with pictures of yourself. Take the first one.

“Just look at it, just look at it and see what you experience. Look at it as long as you want to. When you’re through looking at it, hand it back. If you have anything to say, fine. Say it. If not, you don’t have to say anything.”

One at a time go through the pictures.

“The pictures, they don’t react much to the two- to four-year-old pictures. Some time around the age of six is a very significant picture for them. That’s the point in life where we lose our naturalness and we start taking on the acts of the world and behaving the way people tell us to and start squelching our own naturalness. Frequently they get to that picture and they start to cry. And cry and cry and cry.”

This can be really powerful exercise and help to stir things up or move things around in the emotional body. The beginning of these movements can help to shift something inside. The first time I used the photo trip remains one of my singular most powerful and releasing journeys of my life and as Leo says happens with most people, I cried and cried, and cried. It was beautiful. Try it out!

You can find the book about Leo as a pdf on the MAPS website: The Secret Chief Revealed. I can absolutely recommend it for both journeyers and tripsitters.