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Written by Luke DeStefano
I have to admit, the title of this blog is a little misleading. I don’t really believe in “bad trips”.
But “bad”? I guess that all depends on what you define as bad.
I’ve spent nights face down in the mud, 100% sure I was dying, watching my life dissolve into a swirling, technicolor oblivion.
I’ve had full blown panic attacks in a sea of menacing, melting faces, all of whom seemed to know my deepest, darkest secrets.
But a bad trip? Never. All of these experiences, while not exactly fun, served to teach me a great deal about myself, my shadows, and my staggering ignorance as a young psychonaut.
Let's zoom out for context. There are cultures out there who carry millenia of experience with entheogenic plants. The Shipibo of the Amazon, the Huichol of Mexico, or the Inca of the Peruvian highlands to name a few. To them, these plants, cactus and fungi are holy sacraments, a bridge between man and Spirit, and a means of sacred initiation into new stages of human life.
Here in the West, psychedelics usually arrive at our door with clumsy hands and grave misunderstandings. Where I’m from, I was introduced to psychedelics as a party accessory, laced with heavy stigmas courtesy of the hippy era and a so-called War on Drugs.
We are a culture of the uninitiated. Lacking the rites of passage to healthy adulthood that are found and documented among the in-tact cultures of the world, the curious young are left to stumble through a minefield of psychological and spiritual risk on their quest for life’s deeper meaning.
Without proper guidance, we improvise, answering to the deep yearning for mystical initiation by discovering the boundaries of the psychedelic arena on our own, or worse, heeding the advice of people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Most of us make it out ok. Others, not so much.
Fortunately, times are changing, and there are more and more resources available for those seeking safe practice with psychedelics. Still, I talk to many people who are genuinely attracted to the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, but they are afraid to to take the next step because their one and only experience was “a time in college” where they took way too much of something, almost always with alcohol, and had an awful experience. Like going to a rock concert on a massive dose of mushrooms, for example.
They say, “I had a bad trip.”
“No”. I say. “You had a bad idea.”
Unpredictability is inherent to the psychedelic experience, which is part of the beauty and mystery of the work. That being said, here are some very useful preparations and tools you can utilize to navigate whatever challenges might arise.
When you take psychedelics, you’re knocking on a door. You wouldn’t just go knocking on someone’s door for no reason, especially if you knew the person on the other side had superpowers and could melt your face. You wouldn’t just show up and start banging just because you wanted to hear what the door sounded like, would you? Of course not. You would approach the door with respect, and you would know what to say when asked “How can I help you?”
Psychedelics are just the same. What brings you here? What are you seeking? What are you here to heal? What is beneath the surface of your conditioning? What is holding you back from growth? What are you ready to let go of?
These are just examples, of course. Your intention will be your own. Journaling can be a helpful way of clarifying your intention beforehand, and can give you something to reflect on afterwards as part of the integration process. That’s not to say that every intention is always crystal clear. Sometimes you just feel a deep calling, as if your higher intelligence knows it needs something but the mind can’t quite wrap itself around “why”. That’s ok. When you come from the heart, you can’t lose.
As a general rule, taking psychedelics in the middle of an emotionally traumatic or stressful time isn’t a great idea unless your intention is indeed to go deeper into those feelings. I recommend taking at least a week to psychologically prepare yourself by starting to wean off things like social media, television, negative stimulation, and unnecessary stressors. Calibrate your energy to the vibrations of nature by spending time outside, going for quiet walks, meditating, getting exercise, and minimizing a lot of the extra stimuli. This will serve you very well on your journey.
If you’re planning a trip inside, take some time to prepare and clean your space. Imagine you’ve got a very special guest coming over to visit (because you do). The last thing you want to be focusing on are the dishes in the sink, or the pile of dirty clothes on the floor.
Make your space beautiful. Light candles. Set flowers.
Burn incense. Create your temple. Let it be sacred.
I highly recommend creating an altar for the occasion, which is a beautiful way to bring your ceremony’s intention into physical form. It doesn’t have to be religious or decorated with stereotypical "spiritual stuff", just personally meaningful to you. Personal mementos, sacred objects, perhaps a photo of a person if the ceremony is about healing something in that relationship, or if you want to connect to an ancestor. Get creative!
Crystals, stones, feathers…these are all wonderful additions to bring in some of Earth’s beauty into the space, especially if you’re journeying inside. One thing my altar is never lacking is a vessel of clean drinking water, and some fruit to snack on if I get hungry. My #1 biggest buzzkill during a journey is opening the refrigerator and getting blasted with that dreadful light and being confronted with all those freakish leftovers. Save yourself this experience and prepare some food ahead of time for when it’s time to ground back down.
So many “bad trips” happen because people actually have no idea how much they’re taking or how strong their medicine is. The potency of mushrooms, for example, varies greatly from strain to strain, and 1 gram of a particular strain can feel like 4 grams of another. It’s essential to know what you’re working with. Investing in a jeweler’s scale is a wise idea to get precise with your dosage. If you’re working with a new medicine, I recommend starting with a very small amount and giving yourself an hour to gauge the potency.
Having a skilled guide can be a game changer when it comes to getting the most from the psychedelic experience. Even if no challenging moments arise, an experienced guide can apply different therapeutic modalities or shamanic skills (depending on who you're working with) to bring you to insights and realizations that you may not have discovered on your own.
Whether you resonate more with a clinical or shamanic/animist approach (or something in between) the person holding space for you should be a person you feel safe with. Seek someone with humility, gentleness, and wisdom and don’t get distracted by the superficial glamor that is increasingly prevalent in the medicine world. Let your heart decide. '
Just as we prepare our external environment for sacred work, we take care to prepare our inner temple as well. For sure, different medicines require different levels of physical preparation and cleansing before a ceremony, but as a rule of thumb, the cleaner the physical vessel, the more comfortable your experience will be - at least from a gastronomical perspective. Nothing worse that suffering from a bellyache from a massive meal during a journey. This is especially true for any medicine that passed through the GI tract like mushrooms, ayahuasca, San Pedro, Peyote, etc. I recommend fasting at least 8-10 hours before) and eat light and clean at least a day before and definitely no alcohol the night before, and certainly not during the experience.
Note: The ayahuasca dieta requires extra preparation, more on that later.
When psychedelics get intense, maintaining control of the breath is a similar discipline to maintaining your balance on a surfboard on an epic wave. We’re not trying to control the experience or to deny the power of the wave, but rather to move with it so you can ride through (and even enjoy) the intensity without getting freaked out or disoriented.
In a very real way, the manner in which we breathe determines our state of mind. In other words, the quality of our breath determines if we are in a fear state, or if we’re cool and relaxed. In the same way, we can pull ourselves OUT of a fear state by activating the parasympathetic nervous system with slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths. 5 seconds in, 7 seconds out. In through the nose, out through the mouth. The effects are almost immediate.
Thoughts, feelings, emotions - it’s all just energy, and energy wants to move. Movement is therapeutic in its own right since a lot of people don’t get nearly enough of it. We all have our blockages, and these can become much more noticeable during a journey.
When the medicine starts to begin that initial ascent, it’s not uncommon to feel a little anxious or fidgety, especially if this is new terrain for you. Let the energy of the experience flow through you, and move with it. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Shake, stretch, walk, dance, whatever feels good. Explore. You might be surprised to find some new ways of moving that feel absolutely amazing on your journey.
The wise ones say that the Universe was born into existence through sound. Some call it “Om”. Some call it “The Word. Whatever you call it, it is immensely powerful. Your voicebox, that strange biological contraption of cords, valves and pipes, is so much more than a word machine. It is, quite literally, an tool of creation. A frequency generator; an instrument of manifestation and a source of divine vibration by which you can attune the body, mind, and spirit. That might sound like new age nonsense until you eat a couple grams of mushrooms and watch some videos of cymatics.
If you need some grounding during your trip, activate the voice. Mantras, chanting, singing, or even just letting words flow - all incredibly useful. If it feels out of your comfort zone, just try some simple, monotone humming. Don’t worry about sounding good, focusing on making it FEEL good. Feel the vibration in your chest rippling through your cells. See if you can resonate your voice in different parts of your body and use it all a tool to break up some stagnant energy. Pre-recorded music can also be a lovely accompaniment as well, of course, provided it's something soothing and uplifting.
Ah, sweet surrender. Perhaps the most important, yet most challenging practice of psychedelic work. Sometimes, no matter how experienced you are, no matter how well prepared you may be- the medicine may have other plans. Above all else, we must be willing to lay down and surrender ourselves to the power and wisdom that these medicines carry. Surrender your expectations. Surrender your control and attachment to your desired outcome. Surrender your ego, your identity, and the grasping to your familiar reality.
Trust the process.
Sometimes, no matter how well we prepare, the medicine can take you to places that you may not necessarily ‘want’ to go. Sometimes, it can feel like death is breathing down your neck. Surrender. You might discover that, when we open the door, death is just a messenger here to bring you roses.
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