In your festival adventures, you may run across someone who is having a difficult psychedelic experience. It’s important that we all take care of each other at festivals so don’t abandon someone who may need your help. If that someone seems to be posing a danger to themselves or others, alert festival security immediately. Being a good samaritan shouldn’t put you in physical danger.
However, if the person is lost and confused there are ways you can support him or her and keep them safe. Consider assisting them in getting to the medical tent. If you’re concerned you may get in trouble check out this helpful response from our column Ask The Festival Lawyer. There are trained professionals who can help and will do so in a supportive, nonjudgemental manner. Some festivals have designated safe spaces for people in such a condition. The Zendo Project, a group based in Santa Cruz, California, provides such a space at festivals and has compiled Four Pillars of Psychedelic Support to utilize if no other help is available. The following description of Zendo’s Four Pillars is an excerpt from my own experience working with the Zendo project in Costa Rica at Envision Festival.
1. Create a Safe Space
Festival environments are designed to be highly stimulating: Bombastic sound systems, intense light shows and general cacophony create a surreal wonderland for adventure. But when things start to overwhelm, these dynamic effects can heighten anxiety. Zendo is designed to provide tranquillity and comfort. In addition to feeling physically safe, the guest must feel emotionally safe, which involves volunteers exuding a non-judgmental, welcoming attitude.
The conditions for this safety system, according to Sara Gael, MA MAPS Harm Reduction Coordinator, holistic psychotherapist, and Zendo Envision lead, are known as “set” and “setting.”
“’Set’ refers to an individual’s internal state and includes emotional state and mood, pre-existing mental conditions, stress, comfort, and developmental stage,” she explains. “‘Setting’ refers to an individual’s external conditions including where the person is, whom they are with, dosage, and drug interactions.”
Gael emphasizes that set and setting are not mutually exclusive and affect and inform one another. When sitters pay attention to an individual’s set and setting, a safety system, uniquely tailored to that individual, can be created, so that the individual can surrender to the experience, even if discomfort or fear arises.
2. Sitting, Not Guiding
Rather than using direct intervention, the goal for the sitter is to allow healing to occur naturally. The tools we used were breathing, validating, mirroring and affirming. The importance of not intervening in a guest’s experience was emphasized over and over throughout the weekend.
From MAPS: How to Work With Difficult Psychedelic Experiences: “There is always the tendency to overpower the other with our knowledge, wisdom, and insight. So let go of all knowledge regarding the experiences that the person is having. Just be with, listen, and observe.”
Does that mean that the sitter must be rigid and avoid engaging with the guest at all?
“It can be useful to provide gentle reassurance or reframing of the experience,” explains Chelsea Rose, Zendo’s volunteer coordinator. “These methods of support reflect what is already happening for the individual, while also reassuring them that their experience is acceptable.”
3. Talk Through, Not Down
Sitters are taught to understand that there is a natural process going on in the mind of the affected guest. Thus there is no effort to end the psychedelic trip prematurely; sitters must simply let the guest experience it with as much safety and comfort as possible.
Linnae Ponté, Director of Harm Reduction at MAPS and Founder of the Zendo Project repeats the mantra of “Trust. Let go. Be open. Breathe. Surrender.”
Ponté says that when re-experiencing emotions from past trauma, (which sometimes happens with psychedelics) having the space to feel the extent of that pain and suffering can be pivotal to the guest’s healing opportunity. A sitter must acknowledge that any emotions that bubble to the surface during a psychedelic experience are often strongly charged and can bring guests to the threshold of his or her consciousness.
“Our job isn’t to intervene, but to trust whatever is happening for them, and whatever it brings up in us, and to know it’s all temporary,” Ponté continues. “We live in a world where emotional discomfort is suppressed with all kinds of drugs and behaviours, and we give guests the opportunity to instead go into the discomfort, and find out what’s underneath it.”
4. Difficult is Not the Same as Bad
The assumption that a difficult experience is “bad” can, in fact, contribute to the anxiety and general discomfort of the journey. “The mindset evident in the term ‘bad trip’ helps shed light on the outdated and often harmful methods by which these experiences are often addressed, including hospitalization and the involvement of law enforcement,” explains Sara Gael. This approach to handling someone having a difficult psychedelic experience is common at events and often worsens or escalates a situation. They are methods that attempt to end or interrupt the individual’s experience and can send a message to the individual that something is wrong with them or that they are not safe.”
Clearly, that is not the ideal approach for someone who is already feeling overwhelmed or frightened.
For a more complete explanation of how to support individuals who are experiencing an intense psychedelic experience, including important ethical concerns, check out the newly compiled Manual of Psychedelic Support. This incredible resource was the result of a collaboration between researchers, artists, psychiatrists, therapists, Psychonauts, and festival producers and is freely available under a Creative Commons license.
The Zendo Project is currently conducting a crowdfunding campaign to complete construction of a new Zendo structure in order to provide more resources to train volunteers and to expand their offerings at festivals around the world. You can support their efforts here.