Setting up the Right Conditions for Letting Go – How Set and Setting Can Influence Your Psychedelic Journey

By Frank William Ehrenfried M.A –  Associate MFT – Psychedelic and Integration Therapist

From numinous wonderlands to the dark depths of experience, entering into non-ordinary states of consciousness through psychedelics can be greatly unpredictable. Any one experience can reveal in a span of a few hours core truths about reality that can otherwise elude us for many lifetimes. While these experiences often do expand one’s sense of self, entering into unknown spaces can also show us our own shadow and undelt with past. Skillfully navigating these waters can increase the healing potential in what can often feel like a russian roulette of outcomes. Having a course to set sail from, loving and supportive allies as ground control and a conducive environment for your journey can create a holding that helps tap into the highest potential for healing.

One of the key insights left over from the first wave of psychedelic researchers is the mantra of set and setting. Over and over again well traveled elders remind us of how much our mind set, physical location and the people around us can influence the outcome of our journey. Taking psychedelics in recreational settings such as concert venues, social gatherings or hiking trips can and do result in positive experiences. Yet sometimes our best intentions to have fun and connect with others can take a dark turn. This can come in the form of old memories, repressed feelings and relational traumas flooding into our awareness. With our defenses lowered we may no longer be able to stop these experiences from entering center stage. Often labeled as bad trips, some in these states of consciousness attempt to double down on pushing the experience away. If we take a closer look at what these difficult experiences can teach us, we may find that they contain the potentiating seeds for tremendous growth and insight. Knowing how to harness this potential is where thinking through your set and setting can make all the difference.

Having a safe environment and caring individuals to support whatever arises in challenging moments can help you relax into new corridors of your mind. This can come in the form of allowing your body to process old traumas through shaking and spontaneous movements. For others it can be vividly recounting a distant and disturbing memory and having it witnessed by a loving person for the first time. Spontaneous moments like these present us with a genuine opportunity to engage whatever material shows up in our awareness as a crucial component of our overall healing path. Having the right support can allow for entering deeper into these dark corners in an effort to fully move through them. As the famous American poet Robert Frost once said, the best way out is always through. With a little preparation, foresight and intention, moving through whatever arises does not need to feel like drowning alone in the deep sea of our own feelings.

While most psychedelics are still illegal, if you are thinking of journeying in the near future here are a few considerations to take into account. 

Substances/Medicine

  • What type of substance is being taken?
  • What is the dosage and measuring tools/device being used?
  • How long is the typical duration of these substances?
  • Are there any known or unknown impurities within substance and/or source?

Mindset

  • What is your intention and expectation for the experience?
  • How would you gauge your resting emotional state before taking the substance?
  • How is your general psychological well-being in day to day life?
  • Do you have previous experience with the substances being used?

Setting

  • What is your familiarity with the locations you are residing in or journeying around?
  • What is your sense of safety with the physical space in which you are located?
  • Is there access to biological basics such as a bathroom, water and comfortable temperatures?
  • How is the level of noise and activity in and around the location you will be residing?

While these recommendations act as an informal guideline, it can pay off to think through some of these basic aspects. With an increased level of vulnerability, we may be more strongly impacted by things that normally reside out of our awareness. There are ways to create a strong framework and structure around the unpredictability of a psychedelic journey. Working within a legal psychedelic context with a psychotherapist or psychologist can help you navigate and process challenging experiences. To take psychedelics with the intention and mindset of healing within a therapeutic relationship can lead to profound and accelerated transformation. While not everyone’s journey will be with the intention of doing deep therapeutic work, having access and contact to individuals whom are trained in these modalities can be good foresight.

Much like life, psychedelic journey’s run the gamut of unpredictability. Within the realm of things we do have control over, giving some forethought to set and setting can have a tremendous impact on how we navigate the darker aspects of a trip. It can also greatly impact how these experiences ripple out into everyday consciousness when we return. Paying respects to the findings of our psychedelic elders may go a long way in preventing unnecessary suffering and using these powerful tools for their highest potential. 

For more on set and setting, check out Ambassadors to Hidden Territories: Set and Setting in Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy

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