When I recently had the opportunity to talk with a psychedelic integration specialist, we discussed all kinds of topics—addiction, anxiety, mindfulness, and, of course, psychedelic experiences. With several years under his belt as a recovery coach and integration specialist for Being True to You, John Bodine has talked to many people about their psychedelic journeys, helping them tease meaning out of the obscure and relate visions, thoughts, and feelings that come up during experiences to their day-to-day lives.
So I didn’t want to miss my chance to ask John for his expertise on what he thought were the keys to having a good psychedelic experience. To clarify, an integration specialist can’t condone psychedelic use or recommend particular psychedelics, but for people who independently choose to undergo a psychedelic experience on their own, an integration specialist, much like a sitter for MAPS’ harm reduction project Zendo, can share expertise for how to have a safe experience and maximize the benefits of psychedelics. John shared four key principles to make the most of your psychedelic experience. But, before delving into these principles, it’s helpful to understand the fundamental psychedelic concept of “set and setting,” and, in particular, what “set” has to do with the healthy mental attitude that’s imperative for having a successful psychedelic experience.
What is Set?
In his 1964 guide for taking psychedelics The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Timothy Leary first introduced his idea of “set and setting.” Although research has shown that psychedelics are not physically addictive and don’t harm mental health, they absolutely can come with some risks; to mitigate those risks and maximize benefits, Leary suggested that the most important key is set and setting.
Setting is pretty straight-forward. It’s the physical environment where you undergo your experience, whether it’s in your bedroom, in a ceremony with a shaman, or at a music festival. Setting includes music, light, pillows, candles, or anything that is physically in your space with you as embark on your journey.
Set, on the other hand, is a little more nuanced and has to do with your personality and mental state going into the experience. Leary divided set into two subcategories—long-range and immediate. While long-range set has to do with the established characteristics of “the kind of person you are—your fears, desires, conflicts, guilts, secret passions,” immediate set encompasses the attitude you have going into the experience.
“Immediate set refers to the expectations about the session itself,” Leary wrote in his psychedelic manual. “Session preparation is of critical importance in determining how the experience unfolds. People tend naturally to impose their personal and social game perspectives on any new situation. Careful thought should precede the session to prevent narrow sets being imposed.”
4 Principles for a Beneficial Experience
The principles John shared with me supplement Leary’s original ideas of immediate set, and they provide a helpful breakdown of how to embark on a psychedelic experience with a positive attitude. These are particularly useful for anyone who finds themselves in a challenging moment, but, overall, they share solid expertise for anyone taking a psychedelic.
Grounding yourself is essentially focusing your attention and feeling yourself connected to your body, the earth, and your physical surroundings. You can do this anywhere, but studies suggest that grounding yourself outside, also called “earthing,” actually provides health benefits that help you to relax, reduce pain, and sleep better.
The first step to grounding is pretty easy. “Feel your feet on the ground,” John suggested. Taking deep, measured breaths is also helpful for grounding, as is actually laying on the ground, particularly outside, and connecting all parts of your body to the earth.
Grounding yourself is particularly helpful if you find yourself floating away into a scary or anxious mental space, but even if you’re not, rooting yourself to the earth can be a powerful spiritual experience. As John put it, “To jump into flight, you have to first root into the ground.”