#3: The good, the bad and the challenging experience

Could learning about the types of psychedelic journeys help us navigate these times?

Hello friend,

Welcome to the newer face of Begin Again. A simpler, cleaner, more honest look, much like all of us these days.

Dept. of joyous updates

I am happy to report that I’ve graduated (finished?) my first official course, Navigating Psychedelics for Therapists and Clinicians. During the eight weeks of study we covered everything from practical stuff like pharmacology, safety and harm reduction, to psychological and transpersonal frameworks to guide and integrate an experience. It’s been quite the journey. And with this a glimmer of an idea was born, that I may perhaps specialise in psychedelic integration coaching - supporting people in preparing for a journey, and then unpacking and mindfully integrating the lessons into their lives. Just typing this makes me feel all giddy inside. There’s still a lot more to learn, but damn if it isn’t nice to have a compass again.

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Division of inner peace

Lately I’ve been gravitating a lot to Tara Brach’s guided meditations. The gentleness and efortlessness of her guidance is just what I need on mornings when I feel like all the joy is locked away somewhere very far from me. My favourite one, and the one that gave me the hope and courage I lacked to finish this newsletter today, borrows its title from a poem by Rumi. If you’ve never meditated before, maybe this sweet breath-by-breath meditation will make sense to you.

Photo (A well traveled woman) | Rumi quotes, Words, Life quotes

Which leads me to the subject of this newsletter. Good trips and bad trips.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard many people say that these times feel psychedelic. I guess they meant that it kind of feels like we’re both individually and collectively having a bad trip: the madness of isolation, the lack of control, the fear of death sitting with us at the dinner table rather than hiding in its usual spot under the rug. A lot is coming up, along with a new sort of FOMO that we aren’t making the most of this time to become the fittest, happiest, most productive versions of ourselves (a pig in a cage on antibiotics?).

And it made me think of the times I’ve despaired recently, and how the things that helped me resurface have been the navigation skills I’ve learned for handling difficult psychedelic states. To emerge out of bad trip territory back into a space where difficulty melts not into blissful ecstasy, but into a deeper understanding and acceptance of myself. Which led me to ponder this question:

If we are indeed having a bad trip, could knowledge of psychedelic states helps us make it through better?

Nothing like an emboldened rhetorical question to transition into the juicy part of this newsletter. Let’s have a look at psychedelic trips and all the forms they inhabit.

Good trips

Good trips almost don’t need an explanation. They’re what everyone wants (but not always what everyone really needs). They feel positive and blissful, and even if you encounter unpleasant material, you find it easy to navigate through it. You come back with a sense of love, a new passion of yourself and the human experience, and feeling connected to everything.

Less good trips

If you’ve hung out enough around psychonauts, you’ve probably already been told, perhaps even patronisingly, that there is no such thing bad trips, just challenging ones. Ugh. I resent that, because often the same people are too busy to list all the caveats that support their claim, or are just ignorant of the fact that not everyone has the resources to really deal with a difficult trip.

So, are bad trips a thing? Yes, they very much are. But it’s not the end of the world (even though it often feels like it).

There are many reasons that lead to a bad trip. Commonly it’s a lack of preparation: you’re not in a good mindset, your environment is not safe, you’re with people you don’t trust, or you don’t have a sitter/guide to help you. This is often when the experience is overwhelming, chaotic, and full of paranoia or fear that you’re going crazy. Not only can it be traumatising, you probably won’t learn much from it either (other than maybe don’t drop acid with a bunch of strangers at a music festival, and next time get a sitter/guide).

Even if you’ve prepared well, difficult material can still come up. Stan Grof, daddy of psychedelic and transpersonal therapy, described psychedelics as “nonspecific amplifiers” of your psyche - which means that no matter how chirpy and ready you feel, stuff going on under the surface of your conscious mind will emerge in order to be dealt with at last, and it can get overwhelming. You could experience old personal traumas, or even traumas of a transpersonal nature (a past life or maybe an animal), or feelings and sensations you’ve never experienced before. For example, some of the most frightening experiences on psychedelics are of energetic nature, when our bodies shake, tremor and twist to release stuck energies. I’ve been there, and I’m so glad I had loving guides to look after me and explain what was happening.

The difficult psychedelic experiences can take many, many forms, and can get really weird. Here’s a list of potential difficult trips that can turn bad, according to MAPS: reliving your birth, remembering different death, reliving accidents, reliving illness, reliving drowning, torture, and many other physical experiences from this and other lives, reliving mystical states, identifying with and reliving in detail the victimisation of humans throughout history, leaving the body and traveling in the spirit realm, merging with rocks, animals, plants and experiencing the pollution and death of the planet and different species, merging with people, reading their minds, feeling their emotions, being caught in a certain experience, having a UFO experience, being overwhelmed by feelings and emotions.

Not all bad trips…

When the research team from Johns Hopkins University ran an online survey to ask people about their worst trips with psilocybin, they found that 62% of respondents rated their worst bad trip to be amongst the ten most psychologically difficult or challenging experiences of their lives. What’s interesting is that the same percentage of people said that the same experience is also one of the top 10 most significant of their lives, with lasting positive changes.

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Fascinating, right? And here’s where the lines between a bad trip and just a challenging, or even good one get quite blurry.

In a conversation with Sam Harris, psychedelic guide Françoise Bourzat said that having a harrowing experience can be a very empowering journey. Once you open the door to shame, greed or other repressed emotions, you become more complex and mature and more ready for life. To be able to accept, survive, suffer through something big makes you more whole, and teaches you to treat yourself with compassion. So what might feel like a “bad trip” for a couple of hours will resolve itself to only challenging by the end of the experience, and perhaps even good when looking back after a few months.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” - Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

A challenging experience is an invitation to grow. Stan Grof, who facilitated thousands of psychedelic sessions, said that when difficult material comes up, it comes up because it wants to heal. Carl Jung, who didn’t take psychedelics but created the framework we now use to understand altered states, similarly said that difficult unconscious material we’ve repressed (our Shadow) wants to be integrated into our personality and will come up spontaneously in dreams, visions, hallucinations if we don’t actively invite it in. Your nightmares aren’t that different from a challenging trip.

The problem is that our natural instinct when facing a challenging experience is to resist it. We oppose it with everything we’ve got and attempt to distract ourselves until it’s over. Now, you don’t need to have had a psychedelic experience to know that resistance is not the way to go. Acceptance and surrender, though, can do wonders. Stan Grof, who facilitated thousands of psychedelic sessions, said that “total surrender to it is always followed by feelings of liberation, whereas struggle against it prolongs the suffering”. And that’s why every guide or retreat you go to will teach you the same mantra: trust, surrender, and let go.

What if you let everything happen?

Most of my psychedelic trips have been challenging, and I’m grateful I got to put my guns down again and again and learn to surrender. I know that I am strong enough to accept a challenging time and survive it. And that if I listen to it, there’s plenty to learn. A wiser part of myself is trying to help me (call it Higher Self or Inner Healer) and I just need to get the hell out of the way.

The full experience of an emotion is the funeral pyre of that emotion, says Stan Grof. The only way out is through.

So when I said that these psychedelic navigation skills helped me through this time, I meant it. I know it’s not easy, but accepting whatever is happening and letting go is a practice - and it works. Take it from the person who went through a painful break-up and is now self-isolating with her ex, actively going through spiritual emergence and trying to write a thoughtful and well-informed newsletter while anxiety about sickness, financial worries and doubt in her writing skills are competing for who can be the loudest and most damaging.

It works.

“This is how most of us are - stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.” - Anne Lamott


Dept. of further investigation

Divison of good times only

How to not have bad trips:

  • Get 👏 a 👏 sitter/guide. Someone compassionate, empathetic and who knows the territory will make a huge difference to how your trip goes. They can reassure you that your experience is perfectly normal, hold your hand when you’re struggling, and guide you through a difficult time so you learn the important lessons your psyche was trying to teach you.

  • Pay attention to your set and setting. Your mindset, the environment you’re in, the music, the people around you, the state of the world all have a big impact on how your journey will unfold.

  • Face your demons. When the trip gets challenging, see it as an opportunity to face whatever’s coming up, knowing that you’re entirely safe to do so. In the words of Bill Richards, “look the monster in the eye and move toward it… Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or ‘What can I learn from you?’”.

  • Surrender. Trust the process, the research, the people by your side, and the wisdom of the plant medicine. Surrender to whatever experience is coming up and let go of any expectations.

  • Change your setting. If you feel stuck in a particularly bad place during your trip, just move around. Go outside, or to a different room, change the music, or distract yourself by looking at some beautiful flowers or houseplants, or one of those slick 4K nature videos on YouTube. Cuddle up with a blanket. Many people recommend taking your shoes off and touching your feet to the floor to ground yourself. Whatever you do, don’t call your mum.

  • Post-its! If you’re tripping alone (which I don’t recommend for beginners), you can place post-its around the house with reassuring messages like “you’ve taken a substance”, “this will pass”, “let go”, “breathe”, “you’re safe” or whatever you think you’d find comforting.

  • Breathe. It sounds too easy to work, but focusing on deep belly breaths really does wonders. It reminds you that you have a body, that it’s safe, and gives you something to focus on as you relax into the experience.

  • Never take psychedelics, I guess.

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Commitee of ‘are we there yet?’

Hope you got as much value from this edition as I did from writing it. I can’t wait for next time, when we’ll cover mystical experiences on psychedelics and what I got out of these strange, beautiful, awe-inspiring journeys. In the meantime, you can have a look at the series of short stories inspired by the global quarantine I’ve started on my website. And maybe support me and the time I put into writing this newsletter on Patreon.

Hold on, you’re doing so well. HUGS!

Maria