#8 Finding meaning through psychedelic integration: Part 2
The philosophy of integration, your inner healer and practical ways to integrate a psychedelic experience.
|Jun 25, 2020||1||1|
Since there are very few resources online that cover integration in detail, I’ve decided to expand the series into 4 parts that cover almost everything I’ve learned, read and experienced. These articles should give you a good idea of what integration is and how you can tailor this process to best serve your own growth.
If you’re new to this series, part 1 focuses on the meaning-making aspect of integration. This edition and the next will focus on practical ways to integrate. And finally you’ll be hearing from psychedelic integration therapist/member of the Imperial College psychedelic research team, Michelle Baker Jones.
Sometime in the fifteenth century, a Japanese ruler broke his favourite Chinese tea bowl. Young Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who had only just replaced his older brother as shogun after he died from falling off a horse at the age of 10, was understandably upset. So, naturally, he returned the bowl to China to have it fixed. And the Chinese did their best: they slapped a few metal staples on the bowl, and sent it back to Japan. Of course, Yoshimasa didn’t like it, so he passed the broken bowl to his own craftsmen, who joined the broken pieces together with gold, creating a much more beautiful and prized object than before. Thus, Kintsugi was born.
The art of Kintsugi provides us not just with a pretty way of fixing our cracked pots, but also a pretty clever metaphor for how to live life more sensibly. Instead of hiding our brokenness, our darker sides, we can find beauty in how they come together to create a beautifully complex individual. One that sees its wounds and failings as valuable lessons.
And it’s a neat way of looking at integration. In Michelle Janikian’s book, Erica Zelfand describes integration as the process of integrating the human. So if psychedelic experiences can make us aware of the cracks in ourselves and our world, exposing all the scattered pieces, then integration can be our very own practice of mental Kintsugi. The broken pieces are the parts of ourselves we’ve repressed, or maybe dissociated from after trauma, surfacing to be reintegrated into the psyche. We bind the pieces together with the golden meaning of our experiences, which ultimately informs the meaning our lives take. But this gold of meaning is nothing without the craft of the practice behind it.
The philosophy behind integration therapy
While psychedelic integration therapy and regular psychoanalysis may look similar - as in, you’re sitting across from a therapist discussing your life - there’s a key difference that sets the tone for the entire process. In LSD Psychotherapy, Stan Grof points to psychoanalysis’ tendency to focus on a person’s neuroses: “The Freudian image of man is instinctivistic and essentially pessimistic”. A former student of Freud himself, he explains that psychoanalysis tends to see people as driven by sexual impulses and aggression, forever doomed to a base level of unhappiness, and only exhibiting good moral values as a consequence of society’s repressive force.
Psychedelic therapy, instead, focuses entirely on a person’s healthy core: “The basic message is that there is a deep positive potential in every human being that is hidden behind the symptoms, however overwhelming and crippling they might seem”. When a person behaves poorly, the behaviour is seen in the context of trauma alienating someone from their true self. The work focuses on helping a person see their real Self, beyond their trauma and conditioning.
This compassionate philosophy reminds me of Hinduist values, or attitudes from positive or humanistic psychology in the West. A mindset that focuses on growth and a belief that at our core we are divine, rather than bestial, resonates much better with me and genuinely seems like a much better place to start.
The Inner Healer
“When an organism loses its balance, there is an inner self-regulating mechanism which seeks to regain homeostasis. Our bodies constantly regulate temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and much more in response to the changing external environment.” - Françoise Bourzat, Consciousness Medicine
This sense of inner goodness is reflected in the concept of inner healer - don’t roll your eyes just yet. This concept refers to a “knowledge and power within oneself to move towards wholeness and wellbeing”. It’s the belief that you already possess all the resources you need to heal, and that they’re working behind the scenes, trying to steer you in the right direction. You can think of it, as psychologist and psychedelic therapist Elizabeth Nielson likes to say, “a fancier term for intuition”.
In our psyches, this inner healer is the driving force of individuation - an unconscious process that attempts to make our egos aware of the shadow and other unconscious material in order to integrate them. But here’s the trick: in order to fulfil the process of individuation, to listen to your inner healer, you have to first become conscious of it. Then, it’s all about a total surrender to the messages from the unconscious, rather than letting what society or others think guide you.
“The individuation process is more than a coming to terms between the inner germ of wholeness and the outer acts of fate. Its subjective experience conveys the feeling that some supra-personal force is actively interfering in a creative way. One sometimes feels that the unconscious is leading the way in accordance to a secret design. It is as if something is looking at me, something that I do not see but that sees me.” - Marie-Louise von Franz, The Process of Individuation (Man and His Symbols)
Anecdotally, I’ve seen this in action in more obvious ways than my own intuitive healing. At Synthesis, one of the participants met their inner healer as a cheeky, smaller version of themselves, running the busy machine that was their mind and body. As this tiny person was tirelessly pulling and pushing levers, jumping from one side to the other, barely keeping the machine in check, their message was simple: “you’re hard work, slow down so I can help you”.
Even though this inner healer is already part of you, accessing it isn’t easy. First we need to get beyond the mental chatter and negative self-talk that clouds our heads. Then we need to feel safe in order to open up to our wounds and traumas. Once we do - usually with the support of a trusted guide - the inner healer can take over and choreograph the exact experience you need. It’s the same intelligence that shows us just the right sequence of images and memories for us to find meaning beyond our pain, and heal.
Cultivating a relationship and sense of trust in this wise part of us is essential not just during a psychedelic experience, but also in integration. “People really benefit when they are empowered to follow their own intuition and find things that work for them”, says Elizabeth Nielson. And as you’ll see in the following paragraphs, there’s no shortage of integration practices. But not all of them will work for you, as integration is unique to each person. So in order to succeed, you need to trust yourself and find the ones that do.
Integration starts in preparation
“Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key- it opens the mind, frees the nervous system, of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting.” - Timothy Leary, The Psychedelic Experience
If you want good insights to work with, you need to set the ground for them to surface. And set and setting go beyond being in a good mood and having a nice environment for the day of the trip. The set implies how well you know yourself, how you feel about the substance you’re about to take, the relationships in your life and so on. The setting includes how much you trust your therapist/guide, who you’re taking the substance with and what reality you’re coming back to after the experience.
Working with a psychedelic integration therapist to prep
The benefit of working with such a professional during the preparation period is that they’re usually trained in some form of psychotherapy/counselling, psychedelic harm reduction and other modalities. Having had their own experiences with these substances, they can help you decide which psychedelic might be best for you, or if a different, non-substance approach might work better. They’ll know about drug interactions, some of which can be very harmful. They can also prep you in terms of formulating fruitful intentions and understanding what you might experience during the journey.
During the (sober!) sessions preceding your psychedelic experience, your therapist will encourage you to explore your history, beliefs and attitudes around major themes like love, death, sexuality, religion and spirituality. On the one hand, this will give them context to work with you during integration, but it will also support you in understanding where you stand, as new insights concerning these themes may come up during a psychedelic experience.
While therapists usually stay away from giving advice, your guide or psychedelic therapist might gently nudge you towards the kind of living you’d naturally come to after your journey. Stan Grof encourages therapists to point their clients “to the futility and self-defeating nature of various attitudes and behaviours reflecting desperate needs to prove oneself, to please or convince one’s parents, peers or unidentified ‘others’, or to fight irrational authority”. Instead, your therapist will encourage you to focus on what’s going on in your life at the moment: your relationships, your professional life, your home and your relationship to the environment. In the absence of a therapist, you can discuss these with a good friend who’s willing to listen and ask questions.
And it’s not just about introspection. Practices like journaling about what comes up, mindfulness meditation, yoga or any kind of mindful movement, plus time spent in nature and with people who make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside are excellent ways to prep. Once the intention is set, it’s quite common that insights will start surfacing, especially in your dreams, as your unconscious is warming up for the show.
“It is an insult to the potency of this inner work to not take the time to integrate what has been revealed.” - Françoise Bourzat, Consciousness Medicine
1. Coming down
Integration begins as soon as your journey is over, and this is all about creating a soft landing back into reality. A great start is a light meal - a fruit bowl with some nuts and dark chocolate, or fresh buttered bread will make any journeyer weep with joy as they return to their senses. You can also begin to briefly tell your therapist or guide about your experience, or draw it while the memory is fresh.
Regardless of how your journey went, the day after is for grounding and relaxation. If you’ve had a challenging time, it’s likely you’ll feel a bit vulnerable and raw. And even if you’ve had a great blissful rollercoaster ride through the cosmos, you might feel a bit let down by the mundanity of life. This is the perfect excuse to give yourself a day off and treat yourself to a great, loving time. Spend the day listening to soothing music, walking in nature, having nice meals or doing whatever tells your thinky mind to sit this one out.
Depending on the journey, you may need more than a day to fully feel like you’re back in this reality. The focus during this time should be on the present moment: how you feel, how well you’re eating, sleeping and so on.
Whatever you do, this is not a time for big, rash decisions. It’s not uncommon for people to have huge revelations about a partner, a job or how they live on journeys, and then feel like they need to act on them asap. It may seem like selling all your possessions and building a pyramid in the middle of the desert is truly what you need to do right now, because the plant medicine said so (true story) - but waiting it out might reveal the real meaning behind the vision, and will spare you the embarrassment.
2. Reflecting on the experience
As soon as you feel ready, it’s time to start looking at the experience. At retreats, this is organised within the safe container of a sharing circle. If you had an individual session, your guide will organise your first integration session where you can start discussing the content of the journey. If you’re integrating alone, you can write down a vomit draft of your experience as you remember it, without worrying too much about what it means or how well it reads.
Regardless of how you do it, the focus should be on any visions, thoughts, memories, blockages or somatic sensations that came up. My trip reports are messy scribbles with lots of questions marks, WTFs, and potential interpretations that come to me on the spot - they don’t make much sense, but they were very useful as a reference point for future integration sessions.
Whether you’re working with a therapist or alone, it’s good to be careful who you share your experience with. Even well-meaning friends who don’t understand psychedelics might not know how to listen to you, or worse, judge and minimise what you saw. If you really want to share your experience at this point, find someone who is compassionate and respectful, and ask them to listen without offering any interpretations. And maybe don’t tell your mum about it just yet.
3. Meaning making
After you’ve let the experience settle, it’s time to start unpacking its meaning. Your guide or therapist should support you in making connections and tracking emerging themes that relate to your intentions. They may offer support by sharing the potential significance of specific archetypes or larger themes - but the meaning of the experience can only be found by you.
So, looking back at the visions that came up, it’s best to ask yourself what they mean to you, rather than what they represent in the grand scheme of things. How do they make you feel? What do they remind you of? This is very important, as often the meaning lies not in what you see, but in how you relate to it.
For example, on one of my trips, I saw myself as a little baby inside my mum’s belly, and felt unwelcome. The words “she didn’t want me” kept repeating in my head like a horrible mantra, until they evolved into “she didn’t want me to suffer”. Coming out of the experience, I felt like the reason for her nasty behaviour towards me growing up was finally confirmed: she punished me for existing because she never wanted me. But as I continued to discuss the experience with my integration therapist, I came to a different, softer conclusion that empowered rather than victimised me: she was overprotective because she didn’t want me to suffer. It was the fear hiding the love.
As new meanings emerge over the following days and weeks, you’ll get to know yourself better. You might become aware of beliefs you didn’t even know you held, and see how they were influencing your behaviour. Maybe memories from childhood surfaced in order to be processed. Having been opened up, you might realise what’s truly important for you in life. If you’ve confronted your shadow, you might discover lovely forgotten parts of yourself you’ve repressed, or come to terms with shameful behaviours that need addressing. If you’ve encountered mystical consciousness, you might start asking yourself bigger questions around the nature of reality and life. You might experience a new zest for life, or a desire to fix what’s not working.
4. Creating an action plan
“An extraordinary experience, whether through a ritual with a psychedelic sacrament, a ceremony, a vision quest, or a retreat, can stand alone as a treasured event. […] But the real question is, what does it contribute to daily life? How does it make us more whole, balanced, and awake? What is the use of seeing God if you cannot be kind to your partner? What is the value of relating to the earth as a living organism if you still choose to bleach your laundry? What is the point of realising that all beings are connected if you are unable to look a homeless person in the eye?” - Françoise Bourzat, Consciousness Medicine
Understanding the meanings of your experience doesn’t do much if it’s not embedded with practical things you can do on a daily basis. In creating an action plan, you should focus on integration practices that focus on and nourish your entire life: body, mind, spirituality, community and environment. Françoise Bourzat calls this the Holistic Model, and it represents an integrated way of living that allows for positive change to trickle outside of us into our close relationships, communities and environment. Whatever practices you choose, they work best when they serve both you and the world.
Integration is a great time to try new things, as you brain is more open to learning due to the window of neuroplasticity induced by psychedelics. But make sure that these practices are doable and feel good - this process is not about adding more stress and punishment to your life.
And stick with it. Research shows that embedding new habits is not as simple as the 21-day rule, but depends on the complexity of the specific habit. Starting a brand new practice may take up to 66 days to really embed, so sitting down for 5-10 minutes of meditation each day is significantly more effective than forcing yourself to meditate for an hour a few times a week. So if you’re planning to start a new habit like yoga, journaling or meditation, start small. A few minutes a day will feel like a small compromise, and gradually you’ll be able to dedicate more time to the practice as you start feeling its benefits.
Common integration practices
While integration is unique to each individual, sometimes it may require further sessions or modalities to bring an unfinished process to completion. This is especially relevant in the case of trauma, or reliving a birth experience. However, if your process is finished, it’s best to wait around six months before you dive in again - this is the amount of time it usually takes to integrate an experience.
Integration can incorporate many techniques, depending on the experience. For now, I’ll take you through some of the most popular ones - don’t worry, in the next newsletter we’ll look at how to integrate specific psychedelic experiences in more detail.
Psychedelic integration therapy or coaching
As mentioned above, working with a professional can offer you structure and support, and spare you having to research every little thing about your experience. Through their counselling/coaching training, they can help you rewrite old narratives and reframe your relationship to yourself and the world.
The differences between the two aren’t major. Therapists are licensed psychotherapists, sometimes trained in other modalities that can support a psychedelic experience. Their approach is non-directive, and they tend to steer clear of giving advice. Coaches, on the other hand, are not accredited by a specific body. They are likely to use a comprehensive toolbox of modalities since they were in charge of their own education, and they’ll be more directive in the process of establishing and achieving goals (yes, I’m biased). Either of these professionals will encourage you to look at the trip within the context of your life and come up with practices that support your growth. If you don’t know where to start, you can look for an integration therapist here.
Attending integration circles
This is a good alternative if you can’t afford individual therapy, or are looking for community. The great thing about these circles is that you’ll meet people who have had similar experiences to yours, and get to learn how they navigated them. There are, of course, limitations, as you get a limited time to speak and the therapists are there only to hold space, not solve your issues. It’s also important to consider whether publicly opening up about your psychedelic use is safe within your profession.
If you’re in London, you’re spoiled for choice: you can attend the Maudsley Psychedelic Society Integration Group run by folks from King’s College, or the Psychedelic Integration Group run by the folks at Imperial College (now online).
Joining Psychedelic Societies
Attending the events held by psychedelic societies is a great way of expanding your knowledge about this space and learning other methods of self-exploration, like breathing techniques, body awareness, yoga, or emotion release. And also finding community! I’m a big fan of the out-of-my-comfort-zone-ness of the events put up by The Psychedelic Society UK.
This is an all-time favourite when it comes to finding meaning in your experience. There are many benefits to this practice, but mostly it’s about cultivating a daily habit of self-reflection. In time, your trip and integration journal will be a beautiful timeline of your transformation, and might give you clues about what works for you and what doesn’t. And maybe one day you’ll get to tour the world and sign printed copies of them like David Sedaris (but please don’t put this kind of pressure on yourself).
If you’re looking for different ways of journaling, a gratitude practice is a scientifically-proven way of rewiring your brain for joy. It can improve our mental and physical health, sense of wellbeing, and can contribute to post-traumatic growth - kind of worth the 5-10 minutes of writing what you’re grateful for in a journal every night.
This technique is another favourite, especially among those (like me) who don’t enjoy journaling’s tendency to feed our critical voice in regards to writing. This can be anything: painting, drawing, writing a song or a poem, making a sculpture or creating a dance routine. It’s just a way of transforming your experience into an art form, especially if your journey made you more aware of a potentially unexplored creative side.
Mindfulness and meditation
Besides showing great benefits in decreasing anxiety, improving our mood, lowering blood pressure, supporting our immune system and much more, meditation is perhaps the most valuable tool in preparing and integrating a psychedelic experience. This practice allows us to access similar states without the intensity of the drug experience, and can even lead to further insights. 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day can teach you how to train your attention and observe your experience moment to moment, while a loving-kindness practice (metta meditation) can support your journey towards self-acceptance and self-love by cultivating compassion for yourself (and every living being).
A psychedelic experience may open you up to new ways of experiencing your body, so it’s important that your integration includes some form of bodywork in order to release trauma, allow energy to flow and nurture a better relationship with your body. This could mean active practices like yoga, dancing, Tai Chi, Qigong, somatic experiencing practices that help release trauma, or more soothing ones like massages, acupuncture or Reiki. There’s lots to talk about here, so keep an eye out for the next newsletter.
It’s already been shown how psychedelics tend to increase our connection to nature after experiencing its greatness, especially following an experience of ego dissolution that reminds us of our own smallness. So it’s no wonder that spending more time in nature is a great integration practice: it can remind you of the grand picture, and maintain the feelings of interconnectedness experienced during the trip (in addition to many health benefits, plus a necessary increasing awareness of the climate and ecological crisis).
But there are also other ways of inspiring awe, and some will speak more to you than others: you can listen to music, see a live show or a play, visit a museum, or stare at the night sky - anything that moves you beyond the confines of your own ego and stirs a feeling of wonder and amazement will do.
That’s it for now - tune in next time for an in-depth look at how to apply these practices on all five levels of integration, how to handle resistance to integration, and how to make room for change. In the meantime, you can support me on Patreon or by liking, sharing or commenting down below. Thanks for reading!
“Simply taking mushrooms alone won’t change who you are, but if you practice new ways of being, maybe you won’t get stuck in the same rut.” - Michelle Janikian, The Magic Mushroom Companion
Dept. of further investigation
The Science of Gratitude looks at the origins of gratitude, benefits and interesting facts like women being more likely to feel grateful than men.