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The Messy Work of Integrating a Psychedelic Experience
On alignment, courage, and surrender
No one really prepares you for integrating a psilocybin journey. Integration is discussed, but there isn’t a lot of fine print to mill over. Going into the experience, I assumed integration work would hinge on my experience while on the journey. I imagined it would be something between dream analysis and traditional talk therapy. Integration, it turns out, has more to do with the concrete and profound shifts that arise in your life after the journey.
Welcome back to my series on psilocybin therapy. In the first two pieces, I wrote about finding a psilocybin guide and what I experienced on my journey. Now I am picking up the thread with an exploration of the post-journey integration phase. Along the way, I will sprinkle in some insights from my first foray into microdosing.
It’s common for guides to offer a three-step approach to psilocybin journeys. You start with one or two preparation sessions, followed by the trip itself, and then a couple of follow-up integration sessions. When I broached the subject of integration with my guide, she wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. The sheer amount of information you take in during the journey, she said, can take weeks or even months to process.
Given the raw nature of the experience, an outside perspective too soon after the journey could easily sway someone. Unlike therapy, an outside perspective immediately following a journey can be detrimental to your ability to make sense of what you experienced. It is your mind, after all.
In many ways, she was right. The process of writing my trip report was a critical exercise in making sense of my journey. Without the solitary space to digest the experience, I don’t think I would have come to the same life-changing realizations. But, I have come to discover, this isn’t what integration is really about.
Despite my apprehension post-journey, I decided to make an appointment with another guide for an integration session. I showed up at her house on an early spring day and sat patiently in her office admiring the unusual collection of books (some standard Jung volumes mixed with out-of-print books on astrology you might find at the back of the Whole Earth Catalog).
We didn’t spend much time talking about the journey itself. Instead, I spoke about my heightened sense of calm since the experience. Then we jumped into the significant changes I had experienced professionally since my trip. When it comes to work and writing, I have been stagnant since Covid. Who hasn’t? The crux of my predicament is finding the will and resolve to write pieces that truly capture my heart and mind. This desire to write what I like instead of focusing on assignments that provide a stable income has come to a point in procrastinating on a long-overdue book project.
Instead of venturing into the unknown and challenging territory of selling and writing a book, I have been coasting with ghostwriting projects and other less nourishing writing. This passion for writing something I can be proud of was a theme during my journey. However, it wasn’t a particularly strong or dominant narrative.
Before my journey, I had decided that by the end of 2021 I would end one of my primary ghostwriting projects. I was part of a great team, but it prevented me from pursuing my own writing project. A few days before my integration session, a close editor friend passed away suddenly. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only did I lose a friend, but another (less nourishing) writing project also evaporated in the blink of an eye.
I explained all these shifts to the integration guide. This is the fine print, she told me with a laugh. Integration isn’t just about figuring out what you experienced. It’s about changing things in your life that no longer serve you after the realignment you undergo during your journey. As I sat with this revelation, a butterfly flew through the window and landed next to me. Look at the signs from the universe, the guide said, looking at the butterfly. I am not going to lie, the situation was a little creepy (in the best way possible).
The joy of realization gave way to a fear that things were moving forward without my control. It felt as if the universe was intervening a little too directly in my life. But the integration guide assured me that this was quite normal. We all struggle with imbalances in our lives. I had suppressed my desire to write a book to focus on projects that paid the bills but left me unfulfilled. The ego or analytic mind won over the heart and soul. The ego, Ram Dass used to say, is a beautiful servant but a lousy master.
A psilocybin journey realigns the body, soul, and ego through healing. With that newfound realignment, blockages in daily life became incompatible. How else would I have found the courage to embark on the book path and ultimately find work that is true to myself?
I have seen more profound change with others, the guide reassured me. People have lost friendships, rekindled old ones, changed jobs, and even left their spouses. While I am incredibly grateful for the cosmic kick in the ass, I honestly had no idea this is what the integration phase would be about. Aside from reorienting my professional life, I have dipped my toes into the beautiful and complicated world of microdosing since my journey.
Microdosing psychedelics such as magic mushrooms and LSD has been popular for some time. People have reported surprisingly positive results from increased clarity to reduced social anxiety. With psychedelics being legalized or decriminalized in cities and states across the United States, microdosing is bound to take off in popularity in the coming months and years. The venture capital interest in psychedelics is extraordinary but also concerning with dubious characters like Peter Thiel attempting to patent psilocybin.
One remarkable aspect of the microdosing boom is how difficult it is to find clinical results demonstrating its effectiveness. Earlier this year, a study in the UK found that “the psychological benefits linked with taking regular, small doses of psychedelic drugs are likely the result of users’ expectations.” That’s not very encouraging.
In South Africa, microdosing is popular among the health food and yoga crowd, so I associated it with something you might do between activated charcoal juices and raw cacao smoothies. But it’s moved far beyond this crowd. I recently discovered that many friends and family have been microdosing for years with excellent results.
Having experienced a profound connection with the mushroom’s consciousness on my journey, I began to think that microdosing could hold great value for me. I understand that it might sound crazy to say that I have connected with a plant or fungi, but it’s the only way to describe my journey. This connection made me think differently about microdosing. It’s as if the mushroom and I have gotten to know each other and can work together going forward.
A week after my journey, I took the plunge into microdosing, and my results have been fantastic. I began following the rough guideline of the Fadiman protocol, where I would consume a small dose of mushrooms (I started with 80mg but ended up increasing the dosages to 160mg) every three days. Because it is a subthreshold dose, you shouldn’t experience any visuals or hallucinations. Instead, I have experienced a heightened sense of calm and increased focus on the days I dose. On the other days, I have noticed an absence of anxiety. It probably helps that I no longer drink coffee.
I found the reduction in social anxiety particularly apparent in yoga studios. I used to feel deeply uncomfortable in a yoga class. It was equal parts intimidation and discomfort in my body. Despite my love for the practice, I always struggled to find my breath and inner focus. Since the journey and starting to microdose, that anxiety has completely evaporated. I am able to find my inner space regardless of who is around me. I even started private classes, something I wouldn’t have considered before the journey.
The challenge with microdosing is finding the right dose and frequency. I started with a small dose and gradually increased it until I found something that worked. This isn’t regular pharmaceutical medicine; there is no doctor who I can call to help with these variables. Thus, a certain amount of self-guidance is required, which might turn off many potential microdosers.
That being said, I’m not totally on my own. My journey guide helped me through the initial stages of microdosing. There are other mushroom guides focused specifically on microdosing and who offer professional services, mainly on WhatsApp. As society opens itself up to the power of these medicines to transform mental health, we need to figure out a way to tap into the knowledge and experience of these guides. This is easier said than done. Microdosing might not be for everyone, but it can be a powerful treatment for depression and general malaise when used wisely.
After I wrote a draft of this piece, my journey guide asked me about the post-journey process. “Doesn’t it feel like everything has brought you right here?” she wrote with characteristic jubilance. “Is everything so clear now? Doesn’t everything make way more sense? New lens?” Things are clear, and I do have a new lens, but it’s not infused with blinding euphoria. I feel whole again (or maybe whole for the first time in my life). From that starting point, I can engage life as an authentic version of myself.
It’s nice to think about this change in yoga terms. Think of a pose like downward dog and imagine that you have been tensing your shoulders for years (something I have been guilty of until recently). You can still do the pose, but your foundation isn’t strong. How can you build from that? Imagine that you rotate your shoulders out and press into the ground deeper with your hands. Your foundation instantly becomes more grounded, and the rest of the pose falls into place. You are still doing the pose, but you can begin to build from a position of strength.
“Nature loves courage,” Terence McKenna, the philosopher king of psychedelics, said. “You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it's a feather bed.”
Mckenna is referring to the courage to surrender. More specifically, the courage to surrender to the feminine. Looking back on the past couple of months, I am struck that these transformations have all been guided by powerful and wise women. This begins with my incredible wife, who grounded me and gave me the support to start down this path. My journey guide, integration guide, and yoga teacher are all strong and wise women who continue to assist me in rebuilding my foundation. Then there is the most powerful feminine force of them all: The mushroom. Her divinely feminine energy facilitated a depth of healing that rearranged and reoriented my life. As a society and as individuals, we need to rediscover the courage to surrender. We can’t afford to be afraid to start from scratch, learn the basics, and build new foundations. There are guides all around us if only we start looking.