Psychedelic success: how to “set” the ideal experience

By Rudi Anna

Leia Friedman, a Zendo Project volunteer since 2010, provides a supportive space for individuals undergoing difficult psychedelic or psychological experiences. (Photo: Rudi Anna)

Leia Friedman talks to a lot of people. She has this knack for helping others tease meaning out of the obscure and relate visions, thoughts, and feelings that come up during experiences in their day-to-day lives.

They’ll often talk to her about their addictions, anxiety and mindfulness. And, of course, their psychedelic experiences.

With several years under her belt as a recovery coach and clinical psychologist, Friedman embraces her additional role in psychedelic harm reduction as an integration specialist for the  Zendo Project, an initiative of the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) that provides a supportive environment and specific care designed to turn difficult psychedelic experiences into valuable learning opportunities.

The work by Zendo Project volunteers reduces the number of drug-related hospitalizations and arrests that arise from using psychoactive compounds at public events like concerts and outdoor festivals.

They’re the folks taking care of revelers having bad trips at Coachella, Burning Man, the Envision Festival and other noteworthy music and cultural events that can oft elicit the most intense deviances of psychedelic consumption imaginable.

Essentially, they compose a niche support group wrapped warmly in a “harm reduction” model. Harm reduction are those buzz words of recent years indicating policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences associated with various human behaviors, both legal and illegal. Usually, intoxicating substances are involved.

Zendo’s Call to Action

The rising trend of days-long transformational festivals are known for many things: awe-inspiring art, world-class music, elaborate costumes, community bonding, and, for some, the use of psychedelic substances.

“In many ways, these relatively new festival experiences mimic the ancient and ongoing rituals of indigenous people from across the globe,” said Friedman. “Many people who attend them have transcendental experiences that redirect the course of their lives.”

And while in many ways the art, music, and spectacle of these festivals exceeds those of their native predecessors in scale, they lack a critical component that indigenous ceremonies do have: a deep-rooted cultural understanding of how and when to administer psychedelic support services and properly care for those who are on a psychedelic journey.

This is where the Zendo Project steps in.

“It’s a kind of ‘psychedelic first aid’ for those who are having difficult trips, and a caring, supportive atmosphere for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed, triggered, or in need of a safe and comfortable space,” said Irina Alexander, a social worker involved in the Zendo project since 2012.

The Official Zendo Project logo. (Graphic: Zendo Project) 

A Helping Hand

Many of Zendo’s volunteers are mental health professionals, psychedelic researchers, and medical service providers. Others just have histories of relevant experience.

At a typical festival, the Zendo area is housed within a special structure on festival grounds and staffed by specially trained volunteers who can receive overwhelmed participants and give them the space or interaction they need to work through their experience in the most positive way possible.

A ‘safe space’ structure erected for the 2015 Burning Man festival in Nevada. (Photo: Zendo Project)

Often the people who come into Zendo only need to talk to someone for a short while and be reassured that their experience is temporary and that they have community support. Other times, volunteers have indicated that overwhelmed participants may just need a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to who is attentive and grounded, or just some alone time in a quiet space that is not part of the chaotic fray of the festival.

Zendo volunteers have said the goal of the staff is not so much to guide a person through a psychedelic journey like a traditional shaman, but instead to provide harm reduction that nurtures and reassures them until they feel well enough to rejoin the festivities or get some rest back at their camp.

In addition to providing counseling services, staff work hand in hand with security and medical personnel so that cases are handled appropriately and efficiently for everyone involved. This has the benefit of not only lightening the load on these critically important festival resources but also helping people who are not in their right mind to avoid costly visits to the hospital or jail.

The Zendo Project has been around since 2012 and has had a presence at festivals in the U.S., Portugal, South Africa and Costa Rica, where they have helped over 700 people with over 10,000 hours of volunteer staff time.

Last summer, the Zendos, as they often refer to themselves, raised over $69,406 from donors in 32 countries to expand their efforts to events worldwide.

Filling an Important Role

“While some could argue about the illegality or dangers of taking psychedelics in a festival environment, the truth is that it happens, and it is here to stay,” said James Fadiman, a Stanford University Ph.D. who has studied psychedelics since the late 1960s and wrote “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.

“Seeking out non-ordinary states of consciousness, especially in an elaborately-facilitated group setting, is an impulse as old as humanity itself, and can be seen in everything from the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, to peyote ceremonies, to modern day raves and festivals,” said Fadiman.

Most Zendo Project volunteers will be quick to inform someone that unlike indigenous cultures, which have the use of psychedelic sacraments woven deeply into their culture, Western culture lags far behind in understanding the risks, benefits and best practices of psychedelic use, “which is why a project like Zendo is so important,” said Linnae Ponté, the Zendo project director. “Learning how to support people who choose to take psychedelics with a harm reduction approach is best for everyone involved, and helps to create a safe and nurturing environment for all festival attendees, as well as the organizers and staff who facilitate the festival.”

Ponté advocates for the creation of a model for a post-prohibition world, “where psychedelic harm reduction is an integral part of festival health and safety infrastructure.”

But Zendo staff members don’t want any misconceptions about their overall mission to linger. “Let me be clear: an integration specialist can’t condone psychedelic use or recommend particular psychedelics,” said Friedman in between classes at Bunker Hill Community College where she teaches part time. “But for people who independently choose to undergo a psychedelic experience on their own, an integration specialist can share expertise on having a safe experience and maximize the benefits of whatever psychedelic.”

The point is, Fadiman said, that physically these drugs can’t really harm users unless one takes hundreds of times the regular dose. Psychologically, the effects can be serious, especially if “you don’t have somebody with you—the ‘equivalent of the designated driver’,” he said.

Beware: Keeping Psychedelic Experiences to Yourself

Peter Barbush, a small business owner from Ashland, Mass., had two separate friends who used potent doses of LSD on a solitary basis for a few years. During infrequent visits to either friend, he noticed “new behaviors” he’d witness firsthand, and they were much more withdrawn.

“I don’t know if this unearthed latent, schizoid tendencies they had genetically,” Barbush said. “I thought acid makes you feel one with everything, but they were definitely less connected to others. They became these weird curmudgeons.”

Fadiman said when some people take a psychoactive compound, from the psilocybin in magic mushrooms or LSD, they discover this incredible new world. Suddenly, they don’t like the real one because they don’t integrate, he added. They don’t bounce their unique experiences off another partner. “They just want to keep going back.”

Fadiman warned that if someone engages in continuous psychedelic use and doesn’t partake in any social integration process, the results can be insidiously harmful.

“It’s like a roll of film. And when you take a photo on the roll, you get a huge amount of beautiful data. But if you don’t roll the film, and you take another pic, you get a double exposure. It’s twice the amount of info, but twice as hard to figure out what’s there. Then you do triple exposures and more. You get too much data, and it’s worthless,” Fadiman concluded.

IBIZA, SPAIN - JUNE 03: Clubbers dance during the matinee at Space nightclub on June 3, 2007 in Spain Ibiza. The matinee is an all day event and starts at eight in the morning going right on through til six the next day with many clubbers staying the duration. Ibiza remains one of the world's top holiday destinations for young people from around the world. For the last decade or so the island has been a mecca for clubbers with some of the bigger clubs drawing crowds of up to four thousand in peak season. The interior of the island remains a place of solitude and unspoilt natural beauty whilst coastal resorts cater for the masses of the package holiday industry. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Psychedelic users who don’t ‘unpack’ their experiences by sharing with others or writing down their thoughts run the risk of alienating themselves, according to psychologists. (Graphic: Rudi Anna)

Experts indicated that it turned their drug-induced experiences into harmful consequences because they did something that they didn’t fully understand.

“It’s possible to harm yourself with practically anything if you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Fadiman, before explaining some of the guidelines psychedelic users ought to consider for undergoing a safe and successful experiences. The fundamental psychedelic concept of “set and setting” is a good place to start.

Defining the Set and Setting

In his 1964 guide for taking psychedelics “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Timothy Leary first introduced his idea of “set and setting.”

Although research has shown that psychedelics are not physically addictive and don’t directly harm mental health, they absolutely can come with some risks. Leary suggested that in order to mitigate those risks and maximize benefits, the most important factors are the “set” and “setting.”

They are the strongest indicators of the psychedelic experience’s outcome, said Matthew D’Alessandro, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Engineering Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has assisted on several studies on the medicinal benefits of hallucinogenic substances ranging from MDMA to the ayahuasca vine.

Setting is the place where somebody does the dose—the physical environment. This could be anything from a bathroom to a bedroom. It could be in a ceremony with a shaman in a jungle or at a country music festival in Kenosha. Setting also involves other additions like music, light, pillows, candles, or anything that is physically in the space with the person as he or she embarks on the psychedelic journey.

Set, on the other hand, is a little more nuanced and has to do with a user’s personality and mental state going into the experience.

“Many substances exponentially enhance a person’s current state of mind, emotions and general perception of the world,” said D’Alessandro. “It’s a process that can go in either a positive and euphoric direction or a negative, terrifying, and anxiety-ridden direction.

Many psychologists divide the set into two subcategories—long-range and immediate. Long-range set involves the established characteristics of the kind of person you are—your fears, desires, conflicts, guilts, secret passions. Immediate set encompasses the attitude you have going into the experience.

“Immediate set refers to the expectations about the session itself,” D’Alessandro said. “Session preparation is of critical importance in determining how the experience unfolds. People tend naturally to impose their personal and social game perspectives on any new situation. Careful thought should precede the session to prevent narrow sets being imposed.”

Stagnation Without Integration

When a psychedelic experience is over, immediate reflection is key. This is the period when the user should tap their memory to identify the strongest points of the experience. At this point, an integration specialist can be helpful in making sense of any visions, thoughts, or feelings that stood out.

D’Alessandro firmly believes that by “examining these peak moments, you can learn how to bring these realizations into your day-to-day life. But even once those initial revelations are processed, most experts agree that a continued integration practice is essential to long-lasting benefit.”

A psychedelic experience can provide deep insights into the self as an individual and how it interacts with your world, but,  Friedman and most of her cohorts at MAPS and the Zendo Project, maintained that undertaking one in a way that reduces harm and enhances the benefits requires courage, an open mind, and a good attitude. And by connecting with others, we somehow better connect with ourselves.

“We exist in a world where our senses are constantly over-stimulated, so we end up awash in this sea of sensory input.  We use our five senses a lot, and a lot of that sensing goes on without any thought or thoughts about what we’re absorbing or taking in,” Friedman said the day before heading out to Costa Rica for several days at the Envision Festival, an eco-conscious and spiritual gathering complete with international music and performance acts and more. She’ll be there volunteering for Zendo, doing what she can to hold space and help a wary, weary soul in need.

“Our sensing is disconnected from our thinking, and so we don’t always experience the world hollistically. We don’t self-reflect nearly enough,” Friedman concluded.


About Rudi Anna 3 Articles
Rudi Anna is a freelance writer living in Boston, Massachusetts.