Not long ago, while hobnobbing one morning at my 5 year old daughter’s school, I overheard a couple of parents talking about their experiences with different ayahuasqueros and how difficult it was to find anyone reliable in the Bay Area these days.

This is one of the several times I have tapped into intimate conversations about ayahuasca experiences in open public spaces. Is this my own selective perception? Maybe. Yet the demand for ayahuasca work has exponentially grown and diversified in the past decade, and what is offered is often far removed from the container of its original ceremonial setting. Iboga(ine) and Wachuma (or San Pedro) use is also experiencing an international rising curve.

Though this expansive phenomenon is a rich subject for sociological, cross-cultural, and even evolutionary analyses, my reflection here centers on the questions of safety and integration of entheogenic experiences in Westerners. In my practice, I am encountering a growing number of people who, after their journeys, feel left open, shaken, confused, and incomplete. Some even feel abused, haunted, or disintegrated. This tends to happen within contexts where people are neither well informed nor screened before the work; where there is not a stable group of peers and/or a bonding with the guide; and where participants are left to their own resources after or shortly after the work is over. But not only. Even in contexts where these conditions are installed within a regular practice, breakdowns may occur. So, the question is: how can we facilitate positive outcomes and avoid common pitfalls when embarking upon entheogenic work? Let me first address some known guidelines.

Integrating insights from psychedelic psychotherapy and shamanic traditions

From the literature on psychedelic psychotherapy we know that full transformational experiences, involving a total and stable realignment of the sense of self and the world, are rare. Most often, a good deal of focused intention and effort is required to metabolize the amount and type of information accessed, as well as the inner states and modes of information processing reached during visionary experiences. While daily life implementation of the insights gained may be elusive, it is possible if the intention is set. We also know that when the mindset is aligned with the setting provided for the entheogenic experience, subsequent integration may unfold in smoother ways. Key aspects to consider are:

1. Preparing for the experience. Actively informing yourself and requesting concrete guidelines from your facilitators and other reliable sources helps prepare the rational mind for surprises and lessen cognitive defenses. It also makes you aware of possible counter indications for the work. Ponder questions such as: Do I know why and what I am opening myself to? How much do I know about the setting, its cosmological container, about my guides, and the required physical, mental, and spiritual preparation for the work? Have I discussed any medical or psycho-emotional concerns regarding my aptness for the work? Part of this active preparation involves a serious inquiry into the nature of your intention, and the appropriateness of the setting you are choosing to support your inquiry. The paradoxical effect of identifying your deeper intention, and then letting go of it when the work starts as a sign of trust on one’s deeper organismic wisdom, has proven beneficial.

2. Bonding with your guide. Trust in the guide as experienced and reliable is key to developing a sense of safety and comfort with the work.

3. Embracing the material that comes to your awareness during the experience, in lieu of fighting or resisting it.

4. Counting upon a (hopefully ongoing) interpersonal or group context for reviewing the entheogenic experience. This aids in validating and retaining insights, and motivates us to implement them in daily life. It also provides a referent to come back to when, for example, unusual information received during the experience is taken too literally or ego inflation occurs.

5. Following certain guidelines after the experience, such as: setting up time to resonate with and metabolize it; being mindful about how to share it; abstaining from making important decisions in the weeks following; journaling to recover lost aspects of it and help process emotions; keeping a regular practice to hold it and implement it; and exploring therapeutic methods that could assist psychospiritual integration.

Often, shamanistic traditions don’t promote verbal sharing of experiences. Experiences are given meaning within a shared mythic and symbolic context, and often the relationship with the entheogen is dialectic: it is a being with its own agency. In this context, an unfolding intimate relationship with this agency is promoted, supported and guided by elders. Spiritual and healing practices, along with energetic guidelines, are often part of the preparation and integration process. Most importantly, entheogenic work is expected to show results that are evident for the person and his/her social network. Otherwise, the legitimacy of the person or that of the shaman is questioned.

Obviously, within such traditional societies the integration of experiences flows differently than for strangers to these cultures. Encounters with beings and intimate messages from the medicines may break down our paradigms and leave us shaken, or reinforce a sense of specialness that feeds our psychological entanglements instead of our healing processes. Keep in mind that the dialogical nature of many of these experiences may entail multilayered meanings, meanings that will be necessary to explore, learn from, and integrate.

Building safer bridges

Integration of entheogenic experiences may take days or years. Often, their after effects result in what Stanislav Grof calls “the grace period” or the “after glow,” meaning that the person still dwells in a different state of being and processing. Sooner or later, old habitual patterns begin to reassert themselves, and people start questioning the depth of their experiences as they fade from immediacy. Instead of taking it for granted, the grace period is exactly the right time to work on building internal bridges to access healthier ways of being in daily life. Energy work, attention to nutrition, an embodied spiritual practice, psychological processing, and a reliable community, all support this transitional period into fuller expression. On the contrary, integration may never happen if one doesn’t make a conscious effort. The experience may, then, simply remain in one’s memory as a curiosity or as a good/scary/strange story to share with others.

In the past few years, I have seen formal and informal initiatives to organize networks of support for integrating entheogenic experiences in response to the burgeoning needs of explorers within the U.S. and abroad. One of them is ERIE (Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education), a students’ group at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, whose graduates founded an independent non-profit organization and invited me to be part of their board. ERIE’s purpose and practice over the years has been that of educating the larger public on these powerful substances within traditional and non-traditional contexts, offering supportive integration groups and a network of referrals, as well as engaging in research on these hot topics (please, refer to www.erievision.org).

In these times, where the Zeitgeist has allowed access to wider possibilities of secular or ritual entheogenic work, we may choose wisely in order to maximize benefits. Resources are available, though there is much more to be explored and developed around entheogenic integration in the West. Cooperative efforts with traditional healers may be key in building the necessary bridges for this, such as the ones needed by those parents at my daughter’s school.

Susana Bustos, Ph.D.