(While partying safely is one of the most important parts of the drug experience, the journey doesn’t end when you come down. Psychedelic Integration is critical to taking what you experienced and actually using it to enhance your life. Ingmar Gorman is teaming up with Dr. Katherine Maclean at the Center For Optimal Living to actually teach people in the New York area how to do it. I’ll be taking this class, because it’s one of the only things I truly think makes me a better Burner. You should join me.)
1. How would you explain Psychedelic Harm Reduction to someone at the dinner table on Thanksgiving?
People use psychedelics for all sorts of reasons, spiritual, therapeutic, or for fun. In pursuit of this, the contents of one’s mind or their thought process can be affected in unexpected ways. Many people pursue psychedelic use for this very reason, to learn about themselves, to experience the unexpected, but it’s difficult to be completely prepared for what emerges. Sometimes a person needs support while they’re in this sensitive state. As Dr. David Nutt has pointed out with his article about “equasy”, many activities have potential risks, even horseback riding. So, Psychedelic Harm Reduction is here for people who may be experiencing challenges during their experience. The role of the support isn’t to be a therapist or to “guide” the trip, but to act as a calm reassuring presence that can help keep the person physically safe. Something like “ground control,” while a person is navigating their internal experience. Psychedelic integration can include the therapy that comes after the harm reduction, but that’s another subject.
2. What is your favorite Burn anywhere in the world?
My favorite event would have to be the Bio series of festivals in the Czech Republic. It’s not a Burn, but there’s a similar spirit. The first one I attended was in 2005 and it was the first outdoor festival of that kind I ever went to. I learned of the event from a random flyer, which I still have to this day (see below). To get there, we took a train from Prague and got off at the “strachovice” train stop, which translates to “fear-ville” and it’s nothing more than a concrete shack surrounded by dense forest. After about a 15-20 minute walk into the woods it starts to sound like the forest creatures are throwing a party, then you take a turn and it opens into this tiny valley with people hopping around to psy-trance. It’s a special place. I recall that on the way home we saw these incredible fields of yellow and purple flowers, which were blooming and contrasting the sunset. A gorgeous countryside.
3. How does your day job affect the way that you Burn?
I try not to have my job influence my experience, but it’s inevitable and I try my best to be aware when it does. To be specific about Burns, I try to designate a specific time and place for me to embody the “sitter” role. The Burning Man Zendo is a great place for that. People can receive Psychedelic Harm Reduction and seek sanctuary while having intense experiences (psychedelic induced or not). My time as a Green Dot Ranger were great for that as well. I can satisfy that part of me and then have time to let loose, participating in all that Burns have to offer. But sometimes it’s hard to keep the impulse to get involved separated. In 2014, right in front of my camp, I observed an extremely distraught women, who had her trauma history activated by a psychoactive compound and was combative with anyone who approached her to help. I definitely had a strong urge to approach her, but after seeing multiple escalating failed attempts, I decided to observe and make sure nothing egregious happened. She was eventually safe, but the decision between intervening or observing is still something I think about.
To add one more thing, having been in the clinical science field I think it’s easy for us to make judgments about the decisions other people make concerning how they use psychedelics or any substance for that matter. The so called “right way” to use them. I’ve encountered the entire gamut of people who use psychedelics for religious, celebratory, therapeutic, and sometimes not entirely intentional purposes. Safety should be a priority, but I find it enlightening to turn my clinician-scientist lens off for a while and listen to what people have to say about their experience.
4. Favorite Burning Man memory?
Oh wow, there are so many. The first one that comes to mind was in 2008, when I was waiting for my friend to come out of the port-o-potty at Center Camp. In the span of 5 minutes, I saw Burning Man’s equivalent of Mardi Gras pass by (with multi-level buses), a burner with a live preying mantis on his arm telling me he found the insect and asked if I knew who the owner was, and then a minute later a visibly unprepared dust-covered couple approached me desperate for a sip of water. My friend then returns from the bathroom and asks me if anything happened while he was gone. It was a wide range of Burning Man experiences crammed into a bathroom break. With that recent release of the Burning Man parody video I feel like a stereotype.
5. Some people have talked about psychedelic integration being crucial to the experience, can you explain what that is?
Psychedelic integration is the idea that after a psychedelic experience, which can be quite powerful, there can be a period when a person reflects on, attempts to understand, or somehow merges their psychedelic experience with their daily life. For some this could be a psychedelic experience that is at the edge of their understanding that they are attempting to make sense of. For others it can be a challenging experience that continues to be on their mind after the psychedelic is used. Or it can be a very simple and clear message, like “I should stop smoking”, but the person has trouble making the change. Integration may not be entirely in the cognitive domain and may include meditation and/or body-focused work.
As the media coverage about psychedelics expands, I’ve become very interested in people who take a psychedelic expecting a specific outcome, whether it be mystical or psychotherapeutic, who find themselves disappointed or discouraged by their experience. Or people who didn’t get to the place they were looking for. Sometimes integration isn’t about a “massive psychedelic download” but more about understanding the multiple meanings embedded in the intention behind taking the psychedelic in the first place.
6. For those in NYC, who do you think would be best suited to take the Zendo Psychedelic Harm Reduction and and Psychedelic Program Integration Training class?
The workshop is open to everyone, including students of all fields, and the general public. We are particularly hoping to engage the professional mental health community because psychedelic use, particularly Ayahuasca and micro-dosing, have become more prevelant in New York City over the past few years. It’s important that mental health professionals, who may be working with psychedelic using clients have some backgound knowledge about potential motivations for psychedelic use. Additionally, there is a sizable community of individuals who aren’t necessarily trained mental health professionals, but seek to support Psychedelic Harm Reduction services at events on the East Coast. To my knowledge, this will be the largest training of its kind on this side of the country. And the event offers continuing education credits for those who need them.
7. Are there real organizations that are teaching/sponsoring this kind of education, or is it something a small group of people are taking on themselves?
The event is organized by The Psychedelic Education and Continuing Care Program, which is part of a larger organization known as The Center for Optimal Living. Andrew Tatarsky, Katherine MacLean, and myself will be teaching Psychedelic Integration, while Sara Gael of The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies’ (MAPS) Zendo Project will provide training about Psychedelic Harm Reduction. It’s the first time we are joining forces to provide a training like this. I’m incredibly excited about it.
8. For those who don’t have access to someone with this type of education/training, are there any tips you can offer them to assist in their psychedelic integration after an experience?
This is a really hard question to answer because I like to be very specific about individual cases. In the spirit of answering broadly, I’ll offer two contradictory pieces of advice. In MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD sometimes participants are advised to not immediately share all the details of their experience or insights with significant others, despite the understandably strong desire to do so. There’s something about keeping a newly gained understanding private and allowing it to grow/gestate inside, without needing to verbalize, define it, and consequently limit it. This can be very useful in making long term changes during integration. Now, the opposite piece of advice I’d give is to seek someone you can rely on to talk about your experience. It can be awfully lonely out there at times and it can feel there’s no one that understands these things. Finding a community or even one person who can listen, can be very helpful in the integration process. One of the inspirations behind the Psychedelic Education and Continuing Care Program was to offer a place where people could find groups or therapists to process their experiences.
9. What are you listening to these days, and do you believe any specific types of music assist in the psychedelic harm reduction process?
Eskmo is always on my playlist and I’m eagerly anticipating Eprom’s new album. The last piece of music that got me really excited was the ‘Like What’ EP by Tennyson. Absolutely love the experimental-funky sound, the jazz-rnb influences, the risks taken with sampled dialtones, and excellent production. With regards to psychedelic harm reduction or psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy generally, music is a hotly debated topic amongst researchers and the public alike. People are very passionate about music and what they perceive to be the best use of music in combination with psychedelic states. Music can profoundly impact one’s experience on a psychedelic and vice versa, as supported by a recent study showing that LSD enhanced research participant’s emotional response to music. The question I like to pose is whether this is something we (as sitters or therapists) want to have influence over. If a person is feeling anxious on MDMA, do we want them to move into that anxiety and feel/understand what it might be about? Or do we want to ease their anxiety with soothing music? If a participant is allowed to control their music during a psychedelic experience, are they doing so to enhance or deepen an experience or is it a means to avoid something uncomfortable? All of these may be the case at different times, but it’s important to pay attention to what process is happening in a particular moment.
10. What would “winning the war” look like for you? If I could wave a magic wand and change the system in whichever ways you’d wanted, what does psychedelic harm reduction look like in a perfect world? I’ve gone over this question again and again. This is clearly very difficult for me to answer. I’m not sure what the end state of a perfect system would look like because I see the landscape as constantly shifting. The one thing that I know for certain is the role education could have in Psychedelic Harm Reduction. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that people have used all sorts of methods to change their ordinary way of thinking and feeling. Plant-based and synthetically derived compounds are an efficient and accessible way of doing so. People should be properly educated about what they choose to put in their body, the risks, and the impact the context of their use has on the outcome. And we need designated spaces with well-trained sitters to provide support if necessary.