"Set and setting" — the user’s state of mind and the physical, social, and emotional environment — is a crucial factor in determining the outcome of psychedelic experiences.
The concept of “set and setting” was first introduced to the psychedelic lexicon in 1964 by the psychologists Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), and Ralph Metzner, in their spellbinding book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The book, published just a year after Leary and Alpert had been dismissed from Harvard, Leary for failing to fulfill his teaching obligations (despite maintaining his presence at all scheduled classes), and Alpert for giving psilocybin to an undergraduate student (something he did not deny), offers an important contribution to the interpretation of what is a bedrock of Buddhist wisdom — The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
In the second half of the book, these experienced expanders of mental and emotional horizons offer instructions for the most fruitful, carefully safeguarded use of psychedelic substances, emphasizing the importance of set (personality structure, preparation, and expectations) and setting (physical and social environment).
While the drug rather mysteriously opens the lock on the gate to the mind’s far reaches, perhaps the most important determinants of one’s psychedelic experience, and indeed non-drug induced alternate states of consciousness, are set and setting. This is in contrast to traditional psychiatric medications and recreational stimulants, depressants, and opioids where pharmacological effects are paramount, and set and setting play a mere minor role.
In age-old shamanic rituals involving the use of psychedelic plant medicines, whether it be the ritual consumption of ayahuasca deep in the mysterious wilderness of the Amazon basin, or the ceremonial chewing of bitter peyote buttons atop the volcanic mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the intentional and carefully structured arrangement of set and the setting are foundational to inner journeys of healing and transformation.
Today, a very compelling and ever-growing body of evidence is confirming that set and setting are the foremost crucial determinants of the nature of one’s psychedelic experience. And so it follows that the use of these consciousness-converting agents in a carefully controlled, comfortable setting, with attention focused towards conscious intention, is, in addition to being the traditional approach, the most optimal approach.
As elegantly described by Bar-Ilan University professor Ido Hartogsohn in his insightful book, The American Trip: Set, Setting, and Psychedelics in 20th Century Psychology, the psychedelic research of the 50s and 60s was conducted, broadly speaking, by two distinct groups. The first group, which was made up mostly of psychiatrists, thought of psychedelics as “psychotomimetics,” that is, psychosis-inducing drugs that could potentially mimic the effects of different psychotic disorders.
Participants in studies designed by this group were mostly psychiatric patients or vulnerable prisoners, addicts, and ethnic minorities who had little to no understanding of what a psychedelic was, to say nothing of the type of reality-switching experience it could occasion.
To make matters worse, these participants were often instructed to partake with little choice, possessing only the knowledge that the stern-faced psychiatrists administering the drug intuited that it could induce symptoms of psychosis.
In stark contrast, the other group of researchers, interested in the therapeutic, cognitive, creative, and spiritual effects of psychedelics, and of the opinion that these most unusual drugs could add significant value to a person's life, seemed as if they were investigating an entirely different class of compounds, under an entirely different set of circumstances.
Participants in these studies, often artists or graduate students, participated voluntarily. They also underwent preparatory sessions for the forthcoming foray into the interior universe that lay “beyond the immediate limits of their senses and understanding,” to borrow a phrase from psychedelic chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin.
In preparatory sessions, as is now routine in today’s psychedelic studies, participants were encouraged to set an intention for the experience. They also had the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with the therapists or researcher and were brought to expect a positive, potentially insightful, and personally meaningful experience.
So, if you were to guess which of the two participant groups enjoyed a more positive experience, which would you choose?
Well, unsurprisingly, the uninformed, vulnerable folk with a hunch of their being on the precipice of temporary psychosis experienced negative “psychological distortions and a variety of “disturbances.”
Contrastingly, the other group, welcomed not as experimental subjects but as valuable fellow travelers, generally enjoyed positive, often life-transforming experiences.
You see, the content and character of one’s psychedelic experience — be it induced by psilocybin, LSD, DMT, mescaline, or other psychedelics and psychedelic-like compounds — is to a large extent, if not entirely, shaped by the user’s state of mind.
“The set is everything you bring to it: who you are, what your expectation is, it’s everything. It’s you. It’s your mindset.” — Dennis McKenna.
The nature of one’s psychedelic-induced visionary journey is fundamentally determined by one’s mindset upon ingestion, their expectations and intentions. This is what experienced psychonauts and present-day researchers refer to when they emphasize the importance of “set” in psychedelic experimentation.
Education is key. In recent years, Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign has become increasingly meaningless, and has come to be countered by the more rational “just say know.”
Before setting out on a psychedelic-occasioned journey through undiscovered terrains of the psyche, it is imperative that prospective users are informed regarding the safety profile, potential contraindications, and appropriate dosages of their chosen compound/s.
Relative to other recreational drugs, psychedelics are incredibly physically safe. In fact, research suggests that psychedelics — psilocybin and LSD in particular — may be the safest of all recreational substances. Understanding and genuinely trusting that you are not in any physical danger can dispel fears and raise spirits.
The word psychedelic is derived from roots meaning “mind-manifesting,” with the implication that these compounds have the power to provide access to deeply hidden parts of ourselves that can be instructive and revealing, but only if that is the intention. A psychedelic trip should not be viewed as a form of entertainment or pursuit of pleasure, but as an experience in which meaningful, potentially life-changing insights can be evoked.
Forthright acknowledgment of the potential for unpleasant memories and difficult emotions to arise and the stern belief that the most challenging of these can be processed when one is oriented away from escape and towards curiosity, is almost certain to engender a path of psychological and spiritual growth. A committed willingness to know and understand that which resides in the illusive corner pockets of the unconscious typically resolves anxiety, and promotes a sense of safety and peace.
Users are also encouraged to foster a sense of clarity on the reasons behind their motivation for psychedelic experimentation, and what it is they hope to learn. Mindful preparation with breathwork practices, meditation, and journaling can help people to relax, cultivate a state of peaceful calm, and set intentions for the forthcoming psychic journey with safety and comfort in mind.
Returning to the psychotomimetic model of psychedelic research in the 50s and 60s, the physical and social environment in which this impersonal experimentation took place was hardly conducive to mindful relaxation, unless of course one enjoys staring at sterile hospital room walls, and the company of unfamiliar, lab-coated psychiatrists on the lookout for symptoms of psychosis.
Many patients were also expected to partake in extensive batteries of physical and psychological tests — likely, in many cases, struggling with confusion, panic, or paranoia having had their sense of self slowly dismantled.
Compare this to the carefully conducted research facilitated by prominent psychedelic scientists of the same golden era, whose focus was on the potentially valuable properties of these fascinating drugs, namely their therapeutic, creative, and spiritual effects, as well as their remarkable tendency to occasion profoundly meaningful mystical-type experiences.
As in today’s studies, this research was often performed in warm, comfortably-furnished, dimly-lit living room-like settings with which volunteers had the opportunity to become familiar in preparatory sessions. Considerable attention was dedicated to creating optimal conditions for positive experiences, with volunteers typically lying on a couch or bed, listening with headphones to a carefully selected music playlist.
According to legendary psychedelic therapist Dr. Bill Richards, in his beautifully open-minded book Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, the nonverbal structure of the music playlist deployed in contemporary studies is thought to offer comforting support as the ego transcends into the state of “oceanic boundlessness” or unitive awareness that is often experienced in the most intense peaks of psychedelic effects.
Flowers, candles, and religious iconography or spiritual memorabilia were also sometimes offered, and instead of being expected to conduct a laundry list of tests, participants were encouraged to look inward and curiously explore their internal space.
This kind of physical and social surrounding was foundational to positive outcomes in the 50s and 60s, and it remains equally important today.
The same rules generally apply to psychedelic experimentation conducted outside of the clinical context — safe, comfortable settings where the chances of being disturbed are zero. Schedules should be cleared, ideally for three days; the day before, the day of, and the day after the experience. This allows for the preparation and integration of any psychological and spiritual insights that may manifest during the experience.
Some prominent psychedelic advocates maintain that the ultimate setting for psychedelic experimentation is outside among the undisturbed elements of the natural world. According to LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann, the drug made people more aware of “the magnificence of nature and of the animal and plant kingdom." Since then, psychedelics have indeed been shown to produce lasting increases in nature-relatedness.
If one does choose to venture from the comfortable and contained confines of home, one should carefully consider what safety essentials may be required.
One of the central aims of preparatory sessions in the lead-up to a psychedelic experience is the development of a therapeutic rapport between the therapist/guide and participant, one that is characterized by a spirit of genuine honesty and openness.
In clinical contexts, psychedelic therapists are trained to relay the right message at the right time, and, of equal importance, is the wherewithal to refrain from relaying wrong messages at the wrong time. This experiential knowledge is crucial to the effectiveness of the psychedelic session.
The presence of a calm, experienced therapist/guide may provide the sense of safety and security and interpersonal grounding necessary for the discovery of insight, and the occurrence of catharsis.
In contrast to the prescribing of other psychiatric medications like antidepressants or antipsychotic agents, it is widely recognized, albeit often the subject of debate, that personal experience of the psychedelic-induced alternate state of the therapist or guide is an essential element of effective psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Without such prior personal experience, a significant gap appears in the way of effective, understanding communication that prevents the achievement of an optimal healing dynamic between therapist and experient.
Understanding how and when to provide reassurance in moments of confusion, encouragement to have curiosity in the face of psychic conflict, or a simple reminder to trust, let go, and be open can sometimes be the difference between a meaningful, even mystical psychedelic session, and one that is marred by vague malaise or terrifying disorientation.
Often, effective psychedelic therapy need not require words — the simple, soft touch of a therapist’s hand can serve to re-direct one’s departure from ordinary consciousness away from potentially destabilizing terrain, and towards safer, more therapeutic territory.
Experienced psychedelic therapists help experients to foster a sense of openness and unwavering acceptance with regard to the variegated structure and content of psychedelic experiences, and offer gentle encouragement to immerse oneself with an introspective focus.
Therapists also guide their fellow travelers through the integration of the experience, which may involve cooperative processing of challenging emotions, the identification of a meaningful story or narrative thereof, and support for healthy behavioral adaptation to everyday living.
In 1970, Czech psychiatrist and LSD psychotherapist Stanislov Grof published the pioneering and revolutionary book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. In it, he proclaims that psychedelics are “unspecific amplifiers of mental processes.”
The primary action of psychedelics is generally thought not to be psychosis-causing, therapeutic, or spiritually enlightening — rather, psychedelics are believed to be mind-manifesting. Psychedelic experiences, in many cases, are a bringing-to-consciousness of the many conflicts that are inherent to human nature.
If approached from this perspective, the phenomena that emerge can facilitate a deeper understanding of the human mind, human nature, and society.
To once more draw from Dr. Grof’s vast repertoire of knowledge, much like the telescope for astronomy and the microscope for biology, psychedelics could be a kind of psychic instrument that allows us to more intimately examine otherwise deeply residing elements of the unconscious — with the caveat, of course, that they are used responsibly.
So too can psychedelics, particularly at moderate-high doses, occasion an ineffably cogent and sacred form of “unitive consciousness” or pure awareness in which users, overcome with a positive mood, have the experience of transcending time and space in a deep acknowledgment of universal interconnectedness.
However, such experiences, and all the variable effects of psychedelics, are fundamentally and crucially determined by the user’s mindset and the setting in which the experience takes place. Controversial psychedelic proselyte Timothy Leary went so far as to claim that 99% of one’s response to a psychedelic journey is determined by set and setting.
To help protect against the very real possibility of psychedelics negatively impacting a person’s life, a human-to-human therapeutic alliance, built upon a solid foundation of honesty, trust, respect, and openness, must be fostered. Preferably, this would take place over hours of relationship-building prior to the session, as is the case in contemporary psychedelic treatment.
The potential for adverse effects is why Dr. Bill Richards emphasizes the importance of interpersonal grounding, that is, having an experienced, trustworthy individual present for the duration of the session. Psychedelic experients must feel sufficiently emotionally supported and secure to surrender to powerful psychedelic-occasioned shifts in consciousness.
Additionally, psychedelic-assisted therapy involves an interpersonal process of interpretation and integration of the subjective experience that is foundational to positive therapeutic outcomes, improved well-being, and positive changes in daily life.
As Hartogsohn astutely recognized, set and setting are also shaped by society and culture at large, leading him to coin the term: “collective set and setting.” Collective set and setting, according to Hartogsohn, “represents the social and cultural context” and is composed by “society’s character, its knowledge and attitude towards the psychedelic experience.”
We must be careful not to repeat the unfortunate shift in collective set and setting that took place in the late 60s, fueled by uncontrolled lay experimentation and sensation-hungry journalists, that created mass hysteria, irreconciliation between two emotionally charged groups, and brought about an abrupt halt to scientifically important research.
Psychedelic pioneer Roland Griffiths recently made the poignant claim that the very survival of our species may depend on our collective waking up to the mystery of life, and the moment-to-moment gift of consciousness that enables us to perceive the universe's boundless beauty. It seems reasonable to suggest that psychedelics could contribute to such a collective realization — but safe, reverent use is paramount.
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