Nirvana unfolds slowly, automatically when you prepare for the unknown.
Within the psychedelic therapy community, “Integration” is a buzzword. “Preparation,” not so much. With good reason: just one encounter with Ayahuasca, LSD, DMT, magic mushrooms or Salvia Divinorum can be so powerful and intense that speaking to someone afterwards is an urgent need.
I am gearing my therapy and consultation practice to focus primarily on preparation, because in so many ways, that's what all of life is. Preparing to encounter the unknown... be it psychedelic tripspace, relationships, spiritual insights, or death. I am of the persuasion that we can prepare ourselves by becoming more skilled at cultivating attitudes of curiosity, investigating how health/ harm reduction manifest in our lives, and letting go of an agenda… And THEN, the experiences we are seeking "auto-manifest"... we do not have to pursue them.
Dr. Stanislav Grof, quite well renowned for his contributions to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, has mapped out a "Cartography of Inner Space" that includes the 3 realms Biographical, Perinatal, and Transpersonal. Many individuals, perhaps even you, first come into the world of psychedelics because the struggles and concerns in the Biographical realm, such as depression, trauma, and relationship problems, are so infuriating and immovable that no kind of therapy or solution seems to work. Change seems like a fantasy. Desperation motivates the search for more powerful medicines, like psychedelics, to transcend the biographical story you are stuck in.
But once someone has an IDEA about tripping (on whatever substance), or entering into another transformative process (lucid dreaming, astral projection, past life regression, meditation, holotropic breathing, vision quest, contemplative retreat, etc.)... they are already on the journey. And if that curiosity can be maintained, there is no rush to the “end goal”.
To punctuate this point, I like the following vignette that was shared by the leader of my Nondual Therapy consultation group, G. Kenneth Bradford, Ph.D. He recalls that in a close reading of the origins of Buddhism, it was not while Siddhartha Gautama was putting forth great effort to meditate in a cave in the monastic tradition of asceticism that he became enlightened. It was afterwards, when he let go of trying, and just sat down in a much more relaxed fashion under the bodhi tree, that his relaxed mind and body opened up to his awakening, his transcendent vision. He had unknowingly prepared himself for this moment for years, but he could not have stumbled into it through meticulous planning.
How does change actually happen? By what mechanism can preparation spark change?
This is not the first time that “preparation” has come up as a core aspect of a popular psychotherapy niche. In the harm reduction approach to addiction, Motivational Interviewing is a therapeutic technique that emphasizes five stages of change: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, and Maintenance.
For our purposes (that is, using psychedelics to achieve spiritual and therapeutic benefits), the important common thread is that we emphasize staying in the Preparation Phase until we are ready to move into Action. There is the temptation to have an idea for a “cure” or a kind of change we want to make without doing the proper contemplation and preparation that will make the change sustainable and lasting. This is just as true for psychedelic awakening as it is for changing one’s relationship to an addictive substance.
The nature of change can be elusive, and has been a fundamental aspect of both religious and secular practices for millennia. In some ways - and I think Carl Jung understood this - spiritual and psychological change is more akin to alchemy than to medicine. It progresses through fits and starts, often cyclically rather than linearly. I call this understanding the “alchemy framework”.
Preparation, then, is not simply going through a formulaic to-do list. It involves building the internal capacity to tolerate discomfort, to have expectations shattered or unmet, and to be willing to go back and “re-contemplate” what is actually motivating you. Along the way, you might just begin to trust yourself, to love yourself, and to notice capacities you did not know you had.
Preparation and The Journey Into Transpersonal Realms
To apply the preparation principle to a specific example, here are a few aspects of preparation that I might use with somebody who is contemplating attending an ayahuasca ceremony:
Informing patients (or clients, or potential "journeyers") that preparation for a psychedelic experience is part of the psychedelic experience. Taking the time to prepare pays dividends in the long run.
To this end, I talk to clients about how the traditional recommended shamanic "dieta"- -in addition to being helpful for getting oneself ready for the plant to do its work and to minimize vomiting during a ceremony- -is a process. Just like working with addiction, I take a harm reduction approach and try to foster self-compassion and slowly getting you to phase yourself into the new diet rather than taking an all-or-nothing, success-or-failure view of it. Committing yourself to the diet actually does parallel the process of addressing addiction, especially to the extent that we are addicted to salt, sugar, and other foods that are eliminated during the Dieta.
Applying the framework of "alchemy" can help clients attune to changes that occur on a subtle level. It’s not just the “big bang” of an active psychedelic session that changes you. It is all the preparation that you go through in an intentional way to reach your goals and change your reality. Preparing yourself physically (via diet), as well as emotionally, spiritually and mentally (via therapy and various forms of meditation) refines you and opens you up to new levels of awareness. Dreams become more vivid, intuition increases, and extrasensory perceptions may provide new discoveries of clarity. As such, the preparation itself might be the most important, interesting and "active" ingredient of the long arc of the journey beyond the biographical realm and into the transpersonal realm.
Preparation Can Also Bear Fruits for the Wider Community
As a harm reduction psychotherapist, of course I support legalization of plant medicine - no one should go to jail for experimenting with their body and their consciousness. And yet, I agree with Michael Pollen’s opinion that there is no rush to legalize “recreational psychedelics” without having honest conversations about how their potential can be applied (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/opinion/denver-mushrooms-psilocybin.html).
We can certainly decriminalize mushrooms, for example, while still working on building legal platforms to explore the roles therapists can play in their consumption. Pollen cites practices in indigenous cultures of the Americas and ancient Greece, where deliberate attention was given to setting up a psychedelic ceremony by elders and shamans. For those who want a companion in discovering their relationship with the transpersonal realm, this process can lead to wonderful outcomes if we respect the waters we are wading into.
In the course of preparation, it is good to remember that psychedelics are not the only route towards transcending ordinary consciousness. No matter what the method is for getting outside of oneself and exploring the vastness of the psychedelic realm, it is clear that these interior experiences need to be respected, protected, and worked with before, during and after they are had. And if you are still in the “before” phase, the best medicine is to just be, here, now.
Grof, S. (2019). Psychology of the future: Lessons from modern consciousness research. Suny Press.
Pollan, M. (2019). Not So Fast on Psychedelic Mushrooms. The New York Times, May 10, 2019.