Imagine for a moment, your favorite place in the whole wide world. You’ve been visiting this special place every day for your entire life. It’s not a long or difficult journey. In fact, you can get there instantaneously if you just take a moment to imagine.
As you’re mentally making your way to this magical place, take a moment to look down. Look at the well-worn path your feet have created on the earth. The grass, worn away by your frequent footfalls, has left a clear path to your destination. You’ve been making this journey for so long you don’t even need to consider your route. Your feet simply know the way.
This imagined simple journey is a great representation of how a neural pathway is created inside your brain. Essentially, it represents a single recurring thought that you’ve been thinking over and over again; possibly for years; possibly for your entire life.
And just like your feet unconsciously know the way, you probably don’t even realize you’re thinking the thought. It’s automatic and unconscious. But once formed, these well-worn pathways can turn into ruts that are difficult to escape.
One of the fastest and most effective ways to jump out of the rut and create a new path is with the intentional use of psychedelics. Once an unfashionable trope of the hippy sixties, psychedelics, and other consciousness-expanding substances, are experiencing a renaissance. One that could have profound positive effects on our healthcare system provided we don’t fuck it up in the process.
Since 2016, I have been helping travelers prepare for journeys into expanded states of consciousness then integrate their learnings into their daily lives. The single most asked question I get asked is, “What’s the best way to prepare?” So, with that in mind, I offer to you the same seven-step process I recommend for each of my clients.
Before we begin, a short disclaimer. I do not endorse or encourage the use of psychedelics or any other substances outside of a lawful, regulated context. Substances discussed may be illegal in your country or jurisdiction except under very specific circumstances, such as sanctioned medical studies. I do not provide psychoactive or controlled substances, nor am I a licensed therapist, counselor, or medical professional. Any information received through this article or my services should be considered for educational purposes and not be misconstrued as medical or legal advice. Yes? Good. On we go!
Step 1 – Intention
Understanding the intention of your journey is paramount to its success (or failure). There’s a reason we use the word intention rather than goal. Goals have a definitive end. Once you reach it, your work is done until you set a new goal. An intention is more of a direction, a heading on your compass. It’s unlikely you’ll reach this destination but with the proper preparation, you’ll definitely make progress.
Let your intention start out more broadly than you might expect. Then refine it as you get closer to the journey. In some cases, your intention could be something more serious like healing a specific trauma from your past (let’s call this Journey #1). In other cases, your intention could be more light-hearted; something focused around experiencing joy and happiness (let’s call this Journey #2).
The former intention may be best served working with a qualified guide. The latter could be a safe experience at an ecstatic dance gathering or simply spending quality time walking in the park with a dear friend or partner.
In some communities and with some substances, Journey #2 may be frowned upon because of its more recreational nature. Personally, I don’t ascribe to hard and fast rules like this. Not every experience requires dogma and a strict protocol. I’ve experienced enormous healing simply by listening to music and laughing for hours with a dear friend. Lord knows the last couple of years we could all use a little more laughter in our lives.
This high-level intention will help guide each of the following steps but as the actual journey nears, I do recommend refining and settling on a short, powerful, and positive intention that can be referenced at any point during your journey. A good intention is a mechanism for grounding and forward progress.
If you’re ever in a challenging place during your journey simply ask yourself, “how does what I’m feeling right now relate to my intention?” Sometimes you’re unable to do that, which is why an experienced guide is very beneficial.
I often recommend your final intention to be no longer than a sentence (preferably around 5-7 words) and easy to remember. Write it down and keep it handy throughout your experience.
Step 2 – Preparation
The reason I recommend first setting your intention is that it will significantly affect your preparation. Preparation involves all aspects of your journey. What should you do before your journey, where will it take place, who will be with you, what do you need to bring, and most importantly, what substance will you be using?
If we return back to Journey #1, this type of work would best be served with something like MDMA, psilocybin, LSD, or ayahuasca – listed in order of intensity, necessity of planning, and need for a professional guide. When considering different medicines on a spectrum, I often describe meditation as sandpaper. Increasing in strength, MDMA is a ball-peen hammer, psilocybin and LSD a carpenter’s hammer, and ayahuasca a sledgehammer. Without the proper training, a novice swinging a sledgehammer might be akin to a bull in a china shop.
Looking at Journey #2, it’s very unlikely to drink ayahuasca and plan on going for a stroll in the park. Psilocybin, on the other hand, often brings a deep sense of connection when spent in nature. The main takeaway here is that each of these substances may require a completely different protocol and level of preparation. Additionally, each comes with its own set of contraindications and “warning labels” that you should be aware of before you ingest the substance.
Step 3 – Set
Short for mindset, Timothy Leary’s work in the 1960s introduced us to the concepts of set and setting and they’re just as important today as they were back then. Your mindset going into the journey is paramount to your success and working towards your intention. Depending on your chosen intention, all your preparations should be readying you for this step.
If we take Journey #1 and have decided ayahuasca will be our medicine, at least two weeks of mental and physical preparation are recommended. Our diet changes, we reduce the amount of media we’re ingesting, and we may increase our daily prayer and meditation. These are all wonderful ways to begin developing a (mind)set ready for that intention.
Recalling the intention of Journey #2, our goal was to experience joy and happiness. If you happen to get fired from your job the day before your intended journey, there’s a good chance your mindset and intention are no longer in alignment. This misalignment, combined with the next steps of setting and dosage, could make for an uncomfortable and challenging journey.
Step 4 – Setting
Setting refers to the people, places, sounds, and things you will encounter during your journey. Out of all the clients I have counseled in the past six years, the number one cause of challenging journeys is setting. Being in a safe and comfortable setting, even if you get the dosage wrong, can alleviate much of the panic or discomfort one might experience from a challenging journey.
The intention and medicine you’ve chosen for your journey will again play a large part in your choice of setting. If your intention is healing-focused, I usually recommend an indoor journey in a relatively small room. When addressing challenging issues, it’s common for journeyers to want to wander and move around. I find this is often a signal of discomfort and lack of surrender. A small or confined space helps reduce the ability and desire to move around.
On the other hand, if joy is what you’re looking for and nature provides that for you, taking a hike on an empty trail or finding a quiet place to sit in the woods can be an amazing and powerful experience of connection and singularity. Dancing around in your underwear may also be a perfectly acceptable way to experience joy. Just make sure your setting accommodates your activity.
Sound is usually a major factor in your journey and each medicine can call for a different auditory experience. It’s no surprise that people still enjoy taking LSD and listening to the Grateful Dead. It’s highly likely that music was created using that (or similar) medicine so the energetic frequencies still resonate very strongly today. On the other hand, listening to traditional ayahuasca icaros during a psilocybin journey may be very abrasive. It’s very important to match the medicine to the music and always save some room for silence.
One other helpful reminder for a positive setting is to ditch your phone. If at all possible, play your music from the computer or tablet. Far too often we can feel profound emotions towards a loved one (or not-so-loved one) during our journey. It is never advised to profess your love or disdain while you’re in the middle of your experience. Write it down, sit with it for a few days, then do the work you need to do in an unaltered start. See Step 6 below.
Step 5 – Dosage
The number two cause of challenging journeys is dosage. As is often repeated in the psychedelic world, “You can always take more but you can never take less.” Improper dosage is the fastest way to get yourself into trouble and make your journey – and those around you – very uncomfortable.
Two of the biggest dosage challenges are source and quality. If you don’t know where your medicine is coming from and have no measure of its quality, it’s nearly impossible to know how much you will need to ingest to achieve your desired result. If you’ve done all your homework up to this point, you could have chosen the right intention, the right medicine, completed all your preparation, and even created the perfect setting, but taking too much of anything could ruin the entire experience.
One important factor to note in trying a new substance or journeying in a new setting is your ego’s need for control. Your mind is an incredibly powerful tool and it quite literally has the ability to delay, dampen, or even stop the medicine from activating in your body.
For example, my mind’s need for control was so high during my first ayahuasca journey that I drank three full cups and had to fall asleep before my mind was finally able to let go of control. At that point, I had already drank more than I needed and my first journey was one for the storybooks.
For some, letting go of control and relaxing into the experience comes more naturally. Though if you’ve experienced trauma or have control issues in your day-to-day life, go slow, take your medicine in small doses, and give it plenty of time to activate.
One final note on dosage. After working with multiple medicine carriers and medicines over the years, for those working with trauma, I recommend stair-stepping dosages. Start small and build in the ability for one or two boosters throughout the experience. This allows the mind and body to slowly get used to the feeling of the medicine.
A “hero’s dose” of psilocybin to a trauma survivor is like an army of intruders banging on the gates of your ego. I can promise you that your ego is actually stronger than 5 grams of psilocybin and it will only make for a very long and uncomfortable six hours. For the healing of trauma, there is enormous power in going slow and taking smaller doses.
Step 6 – Integration
You’ve made it. With any luck, you’ve skillfully managed the prior five steps and you’ve had an amazing experience that moved you further down the path of your intention. Now is where the work actually begins.
With all the research (anecdotal and scientific) being published today, the media does a great job of leading us to believe that psychedelics are the magical silver bullet to cure the ailments of mankind. And while there is substantial evidence that they help, the majority of my work is helping individuals integrate their experience into their day-to-day life. Without this, you’re just exploring and quite possibly tripping for tripping sake.
Many times there will be parts of the journey that seem strange, out of place, or downright confusing. The term ineffable is often used to describe a mystical experience and refers to the many unexplainable aspects of the journey. Sometimes these unexplainable moments come up as feelings, visions, memories, or experiences but in almost every case there is something to be learned.
Unfortunately, the substance and the actual experience are not where the healing occurs. The expanded state of consciousness can give us access to new and powerful information that we will now need to integrate into our daily lives. Understanding the safest and most consistent way to do that is very important to this step.
Depending on the type of medicine and the depth of the experience, integration could be a few hours, a few days, weeks, or even years. Some of my clients who have had deep experiences with ayahuasca take years to fully understand and integrate their learnings into their life.
During my first ayahuasca experience in the jungle, the shaman I was working with reminded the group, “If mother ayahuasca tell you to do something in your journey, you should do it.” This deeply resonated with me then and it continues to resonate with me today.
The directions we get from doing deep work should be paid attention to. Depending on their depth and difficulty it may help to consult a coach or therapist for way to safely implement those decisions into your life. We want to go to every length possible not to inflict harm on others in our life as a result of our newfound wisdom.
Step 7 – Activation
Newcomers to the path of sacred medicine often believe that a single experience will cure them of every malady and rogue thought. I’ve seen individuals bring laundry lists of intentions into an ayahuasca ceremony hoping their journey resembles that of crossing items off of a shopping list. This is a surefire way to set yourself up for disappointment.
Unfortunately for most people, healing is a journey, not a destination. I’m a firm believer that no one gets out of childhood unscathed and we’ve all got a fair amount of healing to do. While your healing journey may start with a psychedelic experience, it’s rarely going to end there. With the gift of your newfound wisdom, it’s time to start doing the real work.
My journey with sacred medicine started in the jungles of Peru in 2015. After multiple years of therapy and many other healing modalities, I just returned from another amazing and powerful experience in Peru. The healing, self-love, and deepening of connection never stops, it only grows.
What I very frequently find in many clients is a sense of incompletion. Many will have a powerful experience, then will go through the integration process on their own and to the best of their ability, but where they fall off the path is building habits into their life that support their new learnings. I could do algebra in high school but the likelihood of me solving a linear equation today is next to nil. Without practice and repetition, the magic fades. It takes work to continue moving forward on the path.
Harking back to the happy place we were traveling to at the beginning of this article, we looked down and saw the well-worn path we had been walking for years. A single mystical experience may help us jump that rutty old path and start making our way to a new path and a new destination.
Navigating the terrain between the old and new paths is Integration. Consistently making choices to stay on the new path is Activation. Unless you’re a true master of willpower and habit, this is where a coach, therapist, or spiritual community can come in very handy. This is where you will need ongoing support to remind yourself there is a different way of thinking and living.
Two Magic Keys
If I could offer two magic keys that would unlock every beautiful experience they would open the doors of “letting go of expectations” and “surrender.”
One of my first mentors on the path was fond of saying, “The fastest way to a resentment is to set an expectation.” I have found this to be incredibly true in my life. Setting an intention for your journey should never imply you’re going to get what you want. In fact, psychedelics often have the ability to give us what we need, rather than what we want. Do your best to let go of expectations and your journey will likely be more pleasant. The minute you think you’re in control and begin demanding an outcome is the minute you will be met with suffering and discomfort.
Surrender, along with acceptance, is probably one of the most difficult constructs humans have to deal with. We can’t surrender or accept any more than we can force ourselves to go to sleep. We can do our best to prepare for sleep but until the body is ready, we remain awake. The same holds true for surrender. You can only do your best to prepare for surrender then leave the rest up to a power greater than yourself.
Surrender is especially difficult for those with trauma or abuse in their past. For many of us, surrender meant pain and suffering so “letting go” and allowing the medicine to take us where we need to go can be really difficult. This is most often where challenging journeys come from. Interestingly enough, in this work, surrender actually means winning.
This renewed excitement around psychedelics has me cautiously optimistic. My root teacher, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), and his partner Timothy Leary, did their best to “turn on” as many people as they could throughout the 1960s. But it didn’t take long before things got out of hand. Hospital emergency rooms became flooded with individuals experiencing bad trips. The tides began to change, public opinion waned, and we lost 40 years of progress due to the war on drugs.
I think this time around we have to go slower and add an extra amount of caution and responsibility. That is not to say fun and enjoyment can’t be a valid use for these medicines but the last thing we as a community want to do is find ourselves backsliding in the eyes of policymakers and the legal system.
Science and education are moving full steam ahead to offer us the data and support we need to make major changes to a failing medical-industrial complex. Now we just have to be as responsible as we possibly can while the lawmakers and general public catch up. This time around, let’s give them more reasons to agree – rather than disagree – with us.