8 Common Blindspots, Misconceptions and Pitfalls to Consider Before Working with Psychedelics and Sacred Plant Medicines
Psychedelics are receiving a lot of positive media attention these days and for a good reason. Major online movements like the #Thankyouplantmedicine campaign are helping to de-stigmatize plant medicines, encouraging people to “come out” of the psychedelic closet, and share their stories.
International conferences like the World Ayahuasca Conference or Horizons, bring together experts from around the world to share the latest research. The documentary series Psychedelica is gaining popularity on GaiaTV, new online magazines like LUCID news are reporting on everything psychedelics, and virtual summits are openly speaking about the valuable role psychedelics can play in our culture. We’re even witnessing psychedelic decriminalization starting to unfold in different cities and counties like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, California.
Yes, it’s a psychedelic renaissance indeed.
Psychedelics can offer us so much. And one of the most important ways we can ensure these powerful substances play a safe and supportive role in our culture is through education.
We have to keep in mind that this conversation around psychedelics is not black or white; the picture isn’t all bad as the Nixon-era propaganda painted it out to be, but it’s also not necessarily all sunshine and rainbows either. It would benefit us greatly to understand what the blind spots and misconceptions around psychedelics are, and to approach working with them with this broader perspective in mind.
Psychedelics are powerful substances. And as we know, the more powerful a tool, the more we need to learn how to use it responsibly.
There’s no question that psychedelics can be a potent catalyst to transform your life; the up-side can be massive. But because these are powerful substances, if used within an inappropriate setting or without a focus on psychedelic integration, you can also have an experience that proves to be dangerous to your psychological well-being.
When working with psychedelics, you need to be aware of the obvious risks like medical contraindications, especially if you want to have a safe psychedelic journey at home. These risks also highlight the importance of doing your due diligence and vetting your shaman if you’re going to journey with a facilitator. But there are also subtle misconceptions and blind spots to become aware of when working with psychedelics, if you want to minimize downside risk.
In this article, I want to illuminate some of the common misconceptions, blind spots, and less-obvious risks so you can deepen your understanding and make informed decisions if you choose to embark on this potent path of working with psychedelics and plant medicines.
This may simply be a starting point for exploring the nuanced territory of working with psychedelics. I hope that this inspires you to work with psychedelics with mindful awareness, respect, humility, and reverence for these sacred medicines, as you continue to explore psychedelics as powerful tools for transformation.
Misconception #1: It’s All Fun And Games: Not Taking Your Psychedelic Trips Seriously
We’re all taught to take life, and ourselves, very seriously. We are told that we need to go to school, save money, better our lives, stay focused, and do the best we can to make something of ourselves. Of course, there’s profound meaning and purpose in accomplishing our dreams, but we’re all witnessing the unbalanced results of people unnecessarily killing themselves over the pursuit of happiness.
This is one significant area where psychedelics can play a valuable role in many of our lives. There’s no doubt that psychedelics are fun, and offer us an amazing opportunity to lighten up, to laugh, and to relax into the process of life without taking it all so seriously. This was one of the most valuable insights I initially received, and I think many other people who work with psychedelics can say the same.
But just because psychedelics offer us a portal into more laughter as we dismantle old perceptions of reality, this doesn’t mean we should approach these medicines with a flippant attitude.
The irony is that by taking the container you journey within seriously and the medicine itself seriously, you create a safe space to have an experience where you can learn to take yourself a lot less seriously.
As many of us know, a trip can be all fun and games, laughs, and giggles, right until the moment that it’s not.
Psychedelics can lift the veils of illusion and show us just how much we hold onto and grip the story we’ve crafted for our lives, as we realize these stories are completely made up. We believe the cultural narratives around politics, economics, nationalism, religion, education, money, love, etc. We live and even die for these stories. Psychedelics can allow us to see through the illusion of these stories, which can be such a fascinating source of comic relief –but also a source of psychotic breaks.
The further down the rabbit hole you want to go with psychedelics, in terms of understanding the true nature of reality, the more you need to take that journey seriously, because you just may not be equipped to handle what you discover.
By taking psychedelics and plant medicines more seriously, you show up with more respect, more humility, and more understanding of the full-spectrum experience these mind-altering substances have to offer us.
We can take psychedelics seriously in a light, open-hearted way that prevents us from taking that seriousness too seriously! It’s a balancing act, as we hold the polar ends of this paradox in check.
This allows us to make sure we create a safe container to journey in, within the appropriate context and the right environment, with people we trust.
Misconception #2: Lack of Preparation and Integration
Many people think that they don’t need to take the time to prepare themselves for their psychedelic experience or create space for integration after their trip—this couldn’t be further from the truth.
I encourage you to shift your thinking about preparation and integration and to see them as crucial components of the psychedelic experience itself. Consider thinking of it as 40/20/40:
- 40% preparation
- 20% psychedelic experience
- 40% integration
How you prepare yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically will impact your psychedelic experience.
If you eat McDonald’s and watch violent TV shows, downing five beers every night before your first ayahuasca ceremony, this will likely influence what you process during your experience. Chances are you will have a very different ayahuasca experience if the month before the ceremony you eat clean, whole foods, and spend your time meditating and reading The Untethered Soul, for example. How you prepare yourself and the input you expose your psyche to will undoubtedly have an impact.
Preparation is important. By taking it seriously, you start “cleaning up your act” so-to-speak, and in this way, psychedelics are already making a positive impact in your life, encouraging you to step into deeper alignment with improving your health and wellbeing.
Plant Medicine Integration
Psychedelic integration is the space you create for yourself, and the time you take after your journey to allow the insights you receive to integrate into your psyche.
Integration is the willingness to translate the wisdom offered from these influential plant teachers into the fabric of your everyday life. It’s the opportunity to press pause so you can reflect on the momentum of habitual patterns you’re ready to shake up and switch out.
If your psychedelic journey does not translate into any kind of long-lasting positive changes in your life, then one could ask, what is the point of going on this journey in the first place?
The more you understand that preparation and integration are necessary and essential parts of the totality of your psychedelic experience, the more you will get out of the actual time spent journeying with psychedelics or plant medicines.
More and more professionals in the psychedelic space recognize the importance of plant medicine integration and are developing helpful tools, resources, and guides for integration.
Misconception #3: Underestimating the Importance of Set & Setting
Many people underestimate just how much set-and-setting influences the psychedelic experience. After two decades of working with psychedelics, I’m still deepening my awareness and understanding of the vital importance of set-and-setting.
Set-and-setting describes the context of the container within which you embark on your psychedelic journey.
Think of “setting” as the external landscape and “set” as the internal landscape — short for mindset.
Setting includes the physical environment, where you choose to journey, and with whom. Mindset includes your expectations, attitude, intentions, and character.
All the myriad factors that contribute to set-and-setting are recognized as the primary factors that determine the psychedelic experience itself. Timothy Leary went as far as to claim that 99% percent of the specific response to LSD, for example, is determined by set-and-setting.
It’s worth understanding that different psychedelics and plant medicines have different appropriate settings. I’ve recently heard people talking about doing ayahuasca at house parties or Burning Man. In my opinion, this is not the appropriate environment for medicine that strong.
Here are a few factors that will largely influence the psychedelic experience you have
- Where you choose to journey;
- Who you choose to journey with;
- The medicine you choose and the dose;
- The music you listen to during your journey;
- Your underlying intentions and mindset going into a psychedelic journey.
All of these factors will largely determine the experience you have. Take these contextual considerations seriously.
Your mental state of mind going into your psychedelic trip will have a big impact on your experience. Mindset is essential when you consider the literal translation of the word:
“psychedelic,” meaning mind-manifesting (psyche: mind, delos: manifest.)
Psychedelics act as an amplifier of your psyche and illuminate areas you may have been previously unaware of. This is why it’s so important to take preparation seriously and become increasingly aware of what you expose your mind to, especially leading up to a psychedelic journey. Paying attention to where you place your awareness will support a more overall positive psychedelic experience.
Misconception #4: Psychedelics are Not a Panacea
I wholeheartedly believe in the healing benefits of psychedelics and plant medicines. Yet, when we live in a pill-popping culture where we’re told to swallow a pill to cure the symptom, rather than address the underlying cause, I think it’s understandable why many people hold the misconception that psychedelics are cure-all solutions.
Kira Silak’s story went viral when she wrote about how her first ayahuasca ceremony completely healed her from depression in National Geographic. It’s stories like this that add to the misconception that you can just show up and be healed. Yes, spontaneous transformation and miraculous healings can and do happen. In all my years of working with psychedelics, I’ve had a couple of notable experiences like this.
When I was new to exploring psychedelics, I had quite a memorable LSD trip on New Year’s Eve. At that time, I was working with cocaine and alcohol addiction. That night, while I was tripping, I saw a bunch of people high on cocaine, and something clicked. I didn’t like what I saw. That night, I walked through this instantaneous portal of healing my addiction, and from that moment on, I never touched cocaine again. Although it was a radical transformation, I still had to make significant changes in my life in the days and weeks following that trip, which, of course, is the power of plant medicine integration.
I believe it’s imperative to remember that plant medicines are aids and allies on the path; they simply remove the blocks that prevent us from our innate capacity to heal and wake up. They can illuminate the path before us, but we need to be willing to take the first step.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that psychedelics are a panacea that will do all the heavy lifting and miraculously cure you and transform your life. You may be setting yourself up for disappointment with unrealistic expectations, and also relinquishing your personal power.
Psychedelics and plant medicines are powerful aids, but make no mistake; you inevitably need to choose to show up and do the work in the very nitty-gritty moments of your life, when it counts the most. You need to rise to the occasion and not get triggered by your spouse, to close the fridge door when you’re mindlessly overeating, to put down the beer, to go for the run, to sit on your meditation cushion, to choose love over anger and kindness over resentment. To see the positive changes take root in your day-to-day life, you do actually need to show up in these moments and be willing to make a new choice.
Misconception #5: Another Method of Distraction?
Although psychedelics (except for ketamine) are non-addictive substances, we can still fall into the trap of using them as yet another method of distraction or escapism.
I think it’s worth mentioning that anything and everything can be used as a method of distraction or spiritual bypassing. People use reading self-help books, eating ice cream, watching TV, drinking coffee, smoking tobacco, or even mediation as another kind of escapism, in an attempt to move away from what they are feeling.
Psychedelics are weird, fascinating, and bizarre and can offer us pretty lights and sparkly visuals. This makes them much more interesting than everyday distractions like TV or coffee. That’s why it’s easy to fall into the trap of using psychedelics as another method of moving away from, rather than closer to, having a direct experience with reality.
This happens to be a very tricky shadow side to catch. A few ways you can illuminate this blind spot is by noticing how willing you are to take the time to prepare yourself for, and to integrate your psychedelic experience.
Showing up to drink more medicine, or consume more LSD or psilocybin before you’ve fully integrated your previous experiences is not going to be more beneficial, it just gives you more material that you need to process and integrate. Enjoying the pretty visuals while avoiding the actual groundwork that inevitably needs to happen is a clear indication that you may be using psychedelics as another method of distraction.
Another indication is inappropriate set-and-setting. If you’re only tripping recreationally with friends at parties, then this may be another clue that you’re just escaping your life, rather than contacting it directly. In this case, explore your underlying intentions and look at why you may want to work with psychedelics in the first place and work on cultivating a daily meditation practice.
Misconception #6: Ayahuasca Told Me to Do It, So I Should
Many people turn to psychedelics for clarity, wisdom, and new insights. Ayahuasca is gaining a reputation for “giving instructions,” and directing people on their highest path in life. In Rachel Harris’ book “Listening to Ayahuasca” she shares her experience of completely reorienting her life towards following the guidance she received from grandmother ayahuasca.
But just because you received a vision while tripping on psychedelics doesn’t mean you should follow through on it. Don’t believe everything you think or see for that matter.
This is a fascinating topic, especially for creatives and entrepreneurs who are working with psychedelics as powerful tools for enhancing creative potential, and hold the intention of translating their inner visions into reality.
When learning how to leverage the power of plant medicines to tap into visionary states, the question “How do I know which inner visions I receive during my psychedelic trips to follow through on and pursue?” becomes worth exploring.
Misconception #7: You Think That Everyone Should Do Psychedelics? Think Again.
You have a mind-blowing LSD trip, met God during your 5MeO-DMT journey, or had a life-changing ayahuasca ceremony. Trust me; I totally get it.
After these experiences, it’s so common to want to encourage everyone else to explore psychedelics, because you want other people to “get it” – especially your loved ones. It can be hard to go on a big psychedelic trip to return to your spouse, who has no idea what you’re talking about, and doesn’t understand one of the most significant experiences of your life.
Assuming that everyone should work with psychedelics, or thinking that they will have a similar experience as you, is a major misconception– it’s also dangerous. This kind of work is not for everyone. There are risks and also contraindications with mental health conditions.
Allow people to make informed choices and decisions for themselves. Pushing anyone to join an ayahuasca or Peyote ceremony is not a good idea. People need to feel the call, and they need to feel ready. And that may never be the case with someone you love, and you just have to be ok with that.
Keep in mind: this isn’t the only tool we have access to for healing and transformation. Meditation is an effective method–likely the original one–for exploring dimensions of consciousness. Transformational breathwork can be an incredibly psychedelic experience, so can conscious tantric sex.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to healing. Expand your acceptance for other people’s choices, as it’s likely the case that other people are expanding their acceptance for yours.
Misconception #8: Welcome to Enlightenment
In one sense, psychedelics can offer a relatively predictable trajectory towards experiencing what some would call “Unity consciousness,” “Spiritual awakening,” or even “Enlightenment.” The reliability of dissolving your ego and blasting off into a peak, mystical experience is what makes these powerful substances so appealing.
Who wouldn’t want to bypass all the hard work and go straight for the top? The process of change can be long, even grueling at times and often full of relapses. Who wouldn’t want to skip 30 years of meditation and mindfulness practice and just become enlightened right now?
But there is a danger in this kind of thinking. This quote from Masters puts it succinctly:
“Akin to saying that we have reached the top of Mount Everest when in fact we’ve just been comfortably helicoptered there for a brief, well-insulated landing. Not having taken the climb, and thus not engaged in any of the lessons of such a challenging trek, leaves us far less capable of appreciating where we are than if we had actually made the climb. Our helicoptered self has found a shortcut, but in so doing so has lost out on the grounding and embodiment and participatory knowingness that can be gained only through the climb itself…. Theoretically we may have arrived, but with so little of ourselves actually there, we cannot call it a true arrival.”(Masters, 2010)
Having these peak mystical experiences by leaping to the top of the mountain so-to-speak can be incredibly beneficial. Psychedelics can be, without a doubt, the fast-track to expanding consciousness and implementing meaningful changes in your life. These peak experiences can give you glimpses of wisdom and truths that can undoubtedly inform your entire climb up the mountain, and how you choose to live moment-to-moment in your life. But this doesn’t end up being the case for everyone.
Peak mystical experiences can also make you arrogant enough to believe that you are exempt from that climb altogether; that you have arrived.
Unfortunately, as many of us have seen, a pervasive side effect of people journeying with psychedelics can be extreme narcissism and spiritual superiority. Once those veils of illusion are lifted, and you feel like you know the truth, you now look at everyone else like idiots.
Because plant medicine journeys can dissolve just as quickly as they came on, like the ephemeral quality of a dream, you may be left with nothing except the hallowed belief that you yourself have attained “enlightenment” not making you a kinder person, but actually more of an asshole.
Like the zen proverb says, after enlightenment, do the laundry.
Stay humble. Stay kind. And commit to daily meditation practice and plant medicine integration.
A Few Last Recommendations
To wrap up, here are a few general and helpful tips to avoid some of these common misconceptions, blindspots and pitfalls:
- Take the journey you’re about to have seriously.
- Give yourself the time to prepare adequately.
- Consider the context, set-and-setting.
- Vet your shaman, facilitator, or guide.
- Understand the importance of integration and incorporate it into the totality of your experience.
- Take the necessary safety precautions when journeying at home.
- Love the people in your life, regardless if they do psychedelics or not.
- Leverage psychedelics to help you cultivate solid daily practices.
- Commit to meditating daily.
- If you want to ease into working with psychedelics, consider microdosing.
- Stay humble; you know less than you think–we all do.
Live, Free Laura D