What should you do when under the influence of psilocybin to make the most of the session? What should you do if you encounter fear? What is the best way to navigate a psychedelic journey?

These are all questions you might ask if you are preparing to embark on a psychedelic journey and hoping for an insight or nugget to help you on your path forward in life.

Research setting for a psilocybin study

Bill Richards, one of the founders of the psychedelic research team at Johns Hopkins – one of the leading research institutes in the world of psychedelic research and responsible for those studies boasting the remarkable results that you’ve probably heard – is one of the most experienced figures in the psychedelic field today. Richards, who has overseen hundreds of experiences and had his own too, has put together a set of flight instructions that are read to all study participants who take psilocybin at Johns Hopkins.

These instructions are one of the best resources I’ve found when it comes to high dose psychedelic navigation they offer advice on what to do at certain encounters or points on your journey. They are the basis for an adapted form of flight instructions I put together for New Moon retreat participants.

You can read more of the study instructions at trippingly here, and find Richards’ music playlist for tripping here.

Flight Instructions by Bill Richards

Please relax.  You will never be left alone during your experience.  You need not worry about physical safety, [the name of the other sitter] and I will be here to help you and maintain your safety.

You may experience a deep and transcendental experience.  You may have feelings of the loss of one’s self, experience a sensation of rebirth or even death.  You may experience a feeling that you have ceased to exist as an individual and are connected with the world or the universe.  If you experience the sensation of dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc. — go ahead.  Experience the experience.  Remember that the death/transcendence of your ego or your everyday self is always followed by Rebirth/Return to the normative world of space & time.  Safest way to return to normal is to entrust self unconditionally to the emerging experiences.  

Instruction for Study Guides

Avoid attempting to guide the participant down any journey. However, we encourage you to help the participant enter a deeper experience by encouraging the participant with phrases such as:

“If you see a door, what will you do”?  (Encourage the participant to “walk through it”)

“Trust the trajectory, follow your path”

“Let Go, Be Open, Trust”

“If you see a window, what will you do?”  (Encourage the participant to “look through it” or “open it”)

“If you feel like you’re dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead, embrace it.”

“Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over landscapes”

If the participant is feeling fear, encourage the participant to confront the fear:

“Look the monster in the eye and move towards it… Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.”

“The same force that takes you deep within will, of its own impetus, return you safely to the everyday world.”

If the participant is mild physical pain encourage the participant to investigate the pain using the phrases below (if confronted with intense or acute pain, immediately notify the medical staff):

“Look into the pain you are experiencing, visualize it and see it as clearly as you can.  Where is the source of the pain?  Can you embrace the pain or make the pain leave you?”

“Can you visualize the pain?  Can you see it clearly for what it is?  Is this pain serving you or should the pain leave?”

If the participant encounters nausea or vommits remind the participant:

“Part of your being is discomfort, which shall pass.”

“Feel the nausea leaving you, and you will soon return to comfort”

“Nausea is temporary and it will pass, embrace it and then send it on its way.”

If the participant becomes sick, use the waste bin and towel provided in the room and alert the medical staff.  Follow the training you received regarding nausea until the medical staff arrives.

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

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.

Psychedelics are not an integrated part of our culture in the West and as such they can be difficult to talk about. There is still social stigma attached to the topic, and even though they are increasingly gaining credibility and acceptance, they are still in many ways taboo.

How easily and openly you can talk about psychedelics of course depends on who you are talking to. If you have a very open minded friend then perhaps it is no problem to speak with them about your interest or experience with psychedelics. However, if you come from a conservative background then it may be very difficult to speak about with family members and even bringing up the topic might start ringing alarm bells.

Selective Sharing For Integration

When it comes to a successful integration of your experience, selective sharing is an important point. Just as you have certain friends that you might speak to about certain things like music or philosophy, in the same way you probably have friends that would be more open and receptive to the topic of psychedelics.

Choose carefully who you will share your experience with and how much you will share. The experience can lose some of its magic if not held properly by the listener. A highly skeptical or even mocking response can really dampen what was a very personally meaningful experience and detract from it’s power to catalyze positive change in your life. In some cases it may even cause you to doubt what you experienced and and be encouraged to brush it off as nothing more than a weird drug experience.

Know Your Crowd

Selective sharing should also take into account which aspects of your experience you choose to talk about. If you had a spiritual experience and you have a friend who is very firm in their material mechanistic worldview, then it may not be worth speaking to them about the spiritual aspects of your experience or connecting with the divine. Most likely it will be written off and rationalised by someone who at the end of the day did not experience what you experienced. However, you may be able to speak to that same friend about some of the positive changes you have felt since the experience. You could talk about how you feel or think differently and can even reference some of the science which has shown the changes that happen in the brain. Referencing some of the scientific research that has been done may provide a perspective on the experience that your friend will more readily trust.

 

With this in mind it may not be that with some friends you can speak about psychedelics with and others not. It is more a case of choosing how you speak about psychedelics with each individual.

Opening a Conversation

A good entry to a conversation about psychedelics is to ask a question. Rather than opening up with “I had an amazing experience last weekend on LSD“ you could open up with:

  • “did you ever try LSD?“
  • “did you have any experience with psychedelic drugs?“
  • “do you know anything about psychedelic drugs?“

Entering into a conversation this way is a good way of putting the feelers out. You can get a gauge on persons perspective without commiting yourself to anything and can proceed accordingly in the conversation. If it seems like you do not want to go any further you can say “oh I just read something interesting about it the other day and it got me quite interested.”

Choosing a time to share

If there is someone who you would really like to speak to but are afraid of their response, try to choose a time when they are in a more open and less judgemental state. Generally if someone opens up or shows a vulnerability to you then they will be in a more open frame of mind. Another good sign is when they are really listening to you and asking questions that come from a place of curiosity rather than challenge.

Shifting the landscape through conversation

Talking about psychedelics is an important part of shifting the cultural conversation around the topic and moving the psychedelic movement forwards. With that in mind I would like to share a quote from my friend and Altered founder Dax DeFranco from an interview I did with him back in 2017:

“I think the most important thing is to use and talk about them in an honest way. There’s a lot of talk about ‘coming out of the psychedelic closet’ – like I mentioned before, when you’re the only person who’s experimented with x, it’s hard to talk about it or make it a part of your identity, but the more people that do, the less pressure and fear others feel to identify that way. I think the simple act of being a psychedelic person who’s honest about being a psychedelic person is extremely powerful.”

What is the ideal mindset for a psychedelic journey? I would say the best approach is that of the explorer.

So. what does it mean to be an explorer?

Openness

A good explorer is open to possibilities of experience. When an explorer goes into a new territory or land, they need to remain open minded, letting go of pre-judgments or expectations, if they really want to learn about the landscape, terrain, peoples or culture. Having a fixed idea of what something should be or look like limits the possibility and potential to see it in other ways. This limits the potential for what can be learned in an experience.

For example, if you have a very specific idea that you should feel love and joy and understanding but in fact you feel fear and sadness, then you may get caught in thoughts of “this isn’t what its supposed to be, its not what I signed up for“ and miss a great opportunity that the fear and sadness presented.

Upon encountering the unexpected in a new place, whether it may be shocking or disappointing, a good traveller doesn’t judge “that shouldn’t be there”, they openly accept.

Being at war with what is actually arising is not the way. Being open to and accepting what comes up allows you to work with what is there. This is where I trust comes in.

Trust

Trust that whatever comes up is part of the experience you are supposed to have. Psychedelics are amplifiers for consciousness meaning they bring up what is deep down inside you. They will pull up things from your subconscious to your conscious mind. So trust that whatever arises in the session is something that is deep within you and is an opportunity for you to know yourself more deeply.

Curiosity

Any good explorer is curious about the terrain they are exploring, their surroundings and the situations they find themselves in. Curiosity brings attention to detail and is the bedrock of a deep learning. Curiosity brings a wonder to things and a richer and deeper experience.

Curiosity comes in the I of the RAIN process

Anything that arises in a psychedelic session can be looked at with a curiosity. For example, say you start feeling annoyed. Perhaps there is some noise coming from your neighbors that you haven’t planned on being part of your experience. Curiosity can transmute this feeling of annoyance and irritation to an object for investigation. You can then ask:

OK, why do I feel annoyed about this sound? What am I believing that causes me to be annoyed? How do I know I feel annoyed? How does it feel in my body? What sensations arise in my body? What is this felt experience of being annoyed?

Maybe it could be a feeling of worry and perhaps thoughts come up like “oh no I took too much, this is too strong for me, I can’t handle this“. Again, after recognizing this you can investigate with a curiosity:

What is this feeling of worry? What is it I’m believing that makes me worry? How do I feel this in my body?

Dig in to those sensations. Really look at them. What is their substance? What is their tone or colour?

“Look the monster in the eye and move towards it… Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.”

From Bill Richards’ Flight Instructions,
given to participants of John Hopkins psilocybin studies

The ability to hold this curious approach to difficult feelings can require mindfulness and a lot of patience. Having a tripsitter there to be with you and if necessary, talk you through it, can be a huge help. In the long term, meditation is good practice to develop both patience and mindfulness.

Adventure

Another aspect of the explorer’s mindset is that of the sense of adventure. To head in to unknown territory can be scary and nerve-racking, but it can also be very exciting. Seeing your psychedelic journey as an adventure acknowledges all those feelings and makes space for them.

Jim Fadiman expressly called psychedelic journeyers explorers in his now classic and highly influential book

Experimenter

I also find approaching psychedelic sessions as exploration via experiments to be very beneficial. I find it helps to relieve pressure and let go of the feeling that it’s necessary to figure everything out and receive all the teachings that you ever wanted all in the one session. If you learn anything then the experiment was a success.  You have new data that you can use to move forward on your path of growth. This again ties in to not having too many expectations.

“Think progress, not perfection“
Ryan Holiday

Trying to push too hard, to get the absolute maximum best optimum psychedelic experience can actually have an adverse effect and lead to a less rewarding experience.

After all each psychedelic experience is only one of many experiences in your life, and trying to control the experience too much or confining it to certain ideas or expectations that you have about how it should turn out or make you feel will be counter productive.

A kind and gentle approach, acknowledging where you are and what you are capable of, at that time, whilst still making an honest and sincere effort, is the best way forward…

Kindness

Finally I think a very useful approach is that of kindness. Kindness to yourself and kindness to anything that arises within the session.

Relating back to openneness, any idea of what is supposed to happen in a session can lead to a clash between expectation and reality.

If thoughts such as “I’m not doing this right” or “I should have been paying more attention” or any kind of such negative self talk comes up, then remember that you cannot do it wrong. I find it very helpful to remember that I can always be kind to myself.

Cultivating The Explorer’s Mindset

The explorer’ mindset can be cultivated in your day-to-day life. The next time you go out for a walk, look around your neighbourhood as if it was for the first time that you saw everything, as if you were a tourist. Be curious about the color of the paint on the buildings, the style of the architecture, the textures, the smells in the air, the types of food, the people on the streets. Suspend your judgment and be open to and accepting of what is there. Cultivate this mindset and carry it with you into your next psychedelic journey. Have a great and curious day, and explore!