Integration of Psychedelic Experiences

There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.

Benjamin Franklin

Psychedelic experiences, whether “good” or “bad,” can be tremendously insightful. Their afterglow may give you a sense that your life—the way you relate to your problems, your ego, and other people—is changed forever. You have been miraculously healed, sometimes even of physical symptoms. Chances are, though, that this will not last. That sooner or later—probably sooner—you will find yourself back in the old morass from which you appear to now have escaped. And then this period of sweet respite will seem like a distant memory. You will start longing for its return, and may find yourself taking psychedelics again, but now for the wrong reason: as if it were a reliable palliative to suffering, instead of a broad-spectrum catalyst for insight. Thing is, psychedelics are anything but predictable in what they show you, and whatever is being displayed depends heavily on your state of mind, setting, etcetera. 

That is why you should start working on integrating the experience as soon as you can, if you want the insights to last, and to start informing your actual moment-to-moment experience of being human. Some crucial cause to your suffering may have been seen through, but the physical, mental and verbal habits it produced are likely still very much alive. These habits, and the ways of viewing reality that accompany and inform them, will come roaring back momentarily. In a short span of time, the fundamental cause that has been seen through so clearly while under the influence of the drug will be once more obscured, no longer accessible, but actively running your behavior and ruining your life.

If you don’t take advantage of this nice and warm afterglow to get a head start on modifying the habits that govern your behavior, you’re basically treating the psychedelic journey as a recreational experience. That is fine, no judgments whatsoever, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that you’re leaving something on the table here. Something valuable that people sometimes spend considerable time in therapeutic settings or deep meditation retreats to uncover, and that can now be yours at a great bargain. You’ve gotten to the core of something, and now only need to spend some time to start, and maintain, the conscious process of reorienting your life in line with this new insight. The aforementioned psychedelic afterglow can be tremendously helpful to hit the ground running.

Integrating Bad Trips

So those are the favourable journeys, but not all journeys are great fun, all the time. A bad psychedelic experience can also prove highly insightful, perhaps even more so. Because it has been, or may still be, so challenging, there can be a lot of incentives for you to close the book on it as quickly as possible, shrug it off, and move on. It’s really tempting to do so, especially when the trip experience you were expecting to have was supposed to be light, positive and fun, and you hadn’t planned on having any scary stuff come up. But yeah, it has, and now this is where you are. Damn psychedelics, right?

Look on the bright side, you’ve just gotten an awakening to the reality of your default reactions to life, or to some previously unrecognized complex of unresolved emotions. It may have gone unrecognized but it has nevertheless in all likelihood been influencing your thoughts, speech and actions. You may not have been looking for it, and yet here it is, like a shining gift from on high. The one basic thing to remember about bad trips is that they are mind-made, and generally worsen in a way that is directly proportional to your level of resistance. You are resisting some aspect of your psychedelic experience, and that resistance is practically always coming from a place of fear. That fear is responsible for bringing out the unpleasant thought loops, crazy hallucinations, and paranoid ideation. 

The solution, as you may be aware from having read thus far, is to surrender, but even if you can not bring yourself to do this during the trip, an integration phase can be just the thing to help you come to terms with the lessons the experience contains. Deliberately engaging in integration can make you understand the mirage-like nature of the psychedelic experience, and point you towards underlying mental or emotional realities you can subsequently address. 

Think of the trip as a particularly gripping horror film, but one that has been written specifically for you. It’s a true virtual reality experience, more real than any movie you’ve ever seen, and with you as the lead character. It’s kind of like the movie The Game, where the protagonist’s life is turned upside down because of his unknowing participation in a mysterious game, gifted to him by his brother. Eventually, the lead character is no longer able to distinguish his participation in the game from his everyday life. The psychedelic experience is kind of like that. Still, it ultimately isn’t real. It’s just some scary story you get deeply immersed in. Once the fear and resistance have abated, you’re ready to probe the depths of the experience, and learn more about yourself.

To sum up something that has been said a few times now, both positive and difficult experiences with psychedelics can have therapeutic, or otherwise insightful value. Taking advantage of the opportunity to do some integration can help you glean worthwile lessons. There are three distinct moments to do this—right after the peak, after the experience has ended, and some time in the next few days—each has their advantages and disadvantages. 

Right After the Peak

If you’ve been on an introspective trip, right after the peak is when you usually become more interested in connecting with your surroundings. That may mean talking to people, exploring nature, or exploring your collection of trip toys. The heaviest part has passed, but remember that you’re still massively under the influence. For most trippers, set and setting are still majorly important considerations. Stay safe!

You’re probably going to want to share some of your experiences, either through talking about them, through writing or recording yourself, or through some other form of expression. It is recommended to do so, because the experience is still quite fresh and unedited by the interpretative processes that will start kneading the psychedelic experience in order to better understand it. Although your normal rational and narrative facilities are coming back online, try to make as little of a story as possible, and simply share what happened, as best you can.

It’s not uncommon for there to be strong emotions, so don’t worry if you feel like you can’t control yourself the way you normally do. Also be alright with vagueness; sometimes psychedelic experiences have more of a dream-like aspect, whereas at other times they may seem more real than anything. With some cognitive effort, vague experiences may sharpen in the next few days, and when that happens, it usually betrays the construction of a narrative that may or may not be what actually happened. It can be of great benefit to be able to go back to the vagueness of the original experience, in order to facilitate further integration at some later point in time.

This process does not have to take long, and you’ll be back enjoying the rest of your trip before you know it. You will likely be grateful later on that you’ve taken the time to share the experience as early as you could. 

If you’ve been on an extraverted, outer experience oriented trip, the time right after the peak can be a natural signal for taking a step back, and reflecting on the voyage so far. At this point, the same considerations apply. The sooner you put your thoughts out there, the purer a reflection of the actual experience will be preserved, which can serve as a basis for a more complete integration later on.

After the Experience Has Ended

You’ll likely be tired. Or energized. Or depressed, afraid, loving, or joyful. It’s not just that there are many different chemicals and chemical cocktails you can administer, and that you yourself are different each time, but also that the psychedelic experience itself and how it affects you are rather unpredictable. 

You may want to talk to someone sober, like a trip sitter, or just kick back and rest. It’s likely that your mind will be active, trying to make sense of the experience, and sleep might be elusive. You probably won’t want to, but this can be a good time to put pen to paper, and journal. You will process the psychedelic experience through writing, or some other creative endeavour, and you might hit upon some insightful territory.

Drawing, painting, and working with sculpture might bring out a less rational, more intuitive way to come to some new understanding, whereas music has long been considered the art form that is most in touch with our emotional side. Making music can easily bring about cathartic breakthroughs, that may or may not be understood on a rational level. You don’t have to be a professional artist to express yourself through any of these means, just allow your inner playfulness to come to the fore.

The Next Day(s)

Is when the first real opportunity for integration arrives. No matter if you’ve missed the previous occasions for integration—this is the most important one. Resting has allowed the experience to settle a bit, and may have given you some fresh perspectives. Now it’s time for a structured approach. You can do this by yourself, or with the aid / supervision of a close associate—preferably someone you trust implicitly. Once again, you can work verbally or creatively. If you have time, try multiple methods. 

It is entirely possible that revisiting the experience can bring it back to some degree, so be prepared that this may happen.

Here’s what a psychedelic integration session might look like, structurally.

  • Participants allow themselves to become grounded and as fully present as they can, whether through relaxation, meditation, yoga, or some other way. Shouting can help focus the mind, and liberate the tongue. If you like to dance, then dance! Engaging in martial arts practice, or actual combat, can also help to become sensitive to the space that separates you from the world, and the malleability of that concept. 
    • Facilitators should take care to become aware of any impediment within themselves that would make it harder for them to be fully and lovingly present with you.
    • Facilitators should do whatever they can to make you feel as safe as possible. You’re approaching highly sensitive terrain, that has just been bulldozed raw by the psychedelic substance. 
  • As it is clear that integration is going to be the topic of the session, allow your intuition to lead the way as much as possible. If water has been a theme in your trip, consider doing this session in close proximity to water. Facilitators can of course suggest alternative ways of working.
  • When a creative way is elected, feel free to talk about the process as much as possible, in order to give the insights and memories room to breathe. If talking is the main way of working, don’t feel like you have to be constrained to this method and go for some creative form if that feels appropriate. 
  • After the initial exploration and elucidation, there may be a desire to draw lessons, connect the psychedelic experience to the larger context of your life, and to let those insights sink in. Take the time for emotional reactions to surface and to be fully experienced.

Changes Great and Small

Finally, there may be the desire to explore ways to do things differently, going forward. Some of these ways may be very tangible, straightforward, and easy to implement. Others may involve making great changes, such as breaking off unhealthy relationships, quitting stressful jobs, or moving somewhere more conducive to your new understanding. At times there can be a lot of enthusiasm about making such changes right away. 

Facilitators should be wary of encouraging these plans, as they can occasion great instability while leaving untouched the underlying processes that got the person into the situation in the first place. Instead, participants should probe deeper into these underlying processes, and fully consider the positive aspects of the things they want to run away from, while perhaps agreeing on a cooling-off period of say three months, to forestall doing anything rash. 

To decide on how to implement radical new plans, it can be helpful to determine to what extent you are running away from something, and to what extent you are running towards something. If the “running away” something can described in great detail, while the “running towards” something remains rather vague, that is a clear sign that there is value in probing deeper. Facilitators—or if you are doing this process by yourself, you can play this role for yourself as well—should bring both “somethings” back to relevant internal processes—mental and emotional habits and attributions—as much as possible. 

So, if you are in an abusive relationship and now want nothing more than to get out, ask yourself how you have contributed to these dynamics, investigate how similar dynamics have played out in your life up to this point, and what these patterns help you to experience. Also inquire into what has drawn you to this relationship and why it has endured for as long as it has. In other words, minimize the seduction of adopting a victim mentality—however veiled—and try to own and understand your part in all this.

Similarly with stressful jobs. Investigate how much of the stress is self-created, and may spoil the genuine pleasure you also have engaging in your work. Again, try to see the situation from all possible angles, emphasizing your personal agency, and the desires and needs that got you into this position. Realize that while you can run away from specific situations, you can’t run away from your own tendencies, desires and needs. The only way out is through. Facing and accepting the internal mechanisms that got you here makes it more likely that any changes you make will lead to a better, freer, and more satisfying life.

If you remain adamant about making big changes, which can be a compassionate and healthy thing to do for everyone involved, then do so while honestly reflecting on these things, and make a detailed plan about what you are running towards, and how you can use your insights to create an optimal new life for yourself.

Ongoing Psychedelic Integration

Regularly revisit the material you’ve come across during your psychedelic experience. Take the time, preferably as much as possible, to actively engage with the lessons you’ve drawn. Make bringing your everyday life in line with your new insights a top priority, and be wary of falling back into “old” habits. You can schedule weekly evaluations of your life, perhaps supplemented by a daily meditation or other contemplative practice. It can also be a good idea to formulate a way in which you can bring these new insights to bear on your actual moment-to-moment thoughts, words and actions, and evaluate that regularly. An ongoing mindfulness practice can be very helpful for doing this.

The mind is always looking for stability, and this tendency becomes stronger the longer you’ve been around. Homeostasis is the most energy-efficient way for your body-mind-complex to keep itself running, while staying alert to potential threats and opportunities. Translated into normal English: you will not like to change, even though you might think it would be for the best. You will find ways to sabotage your change project, because it is just too hard sometimes, and life can be hard as well. 

Your job in ongoing psychedelic integration is to understand that progress hardly ever occurs in a linear fashion, and may at times feel as if you’re no better off (or indeed worse!) than you were before. Your job is moreover to not be disheartened by this non-linearity, and to re-establish momentum as soon as possible, keeping in mind that this work is some of the hardest many of us will do in our lifetimes. 

Life After Ego Death

Sometimes, the initial or ongoing integration of the psychedelic experience is inadequate in some way, contributing to an existential crisis. When this happens, you find yourself increasingly disenchanted with, and at a distance from the world around you, and from the things that used to matter to you. The world becomes a place that appears to be devoid of meaning, making you question the meaning of your life, and leading you to view your existence as absurd. Life After Ego Death describes practical ways for you to re-enchant your world.

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