By Annie Lewkowicz
You’ve just had a potentially life-changing psychedelic experience. The colors and magic were incredible. The insights were earth-shatteringly profound. You laughed. You wept. Possibly, you vomited. You feel fundamentally different inside, but now you are landing back into the “default reality” and the hum-drum of your daily routine. What happens next?
For many people, the most important part of any psychedelic journey comes during the integration phase.
What is integration?
Integration is a common phrase within the psychedelic community. Integration is the process of understanding the insights that you have gained through psychedelic experiences and applying them in a lasting way to your life. The word “integrate” means “to make whole.” In other words, when we integrate, we take the pieces of our experience and bring them together in a way that makes sense and that can produce a permanent change in perceptions or behavior. For a successful integration of a psychedelic experience, there are several important steps you can follow.
1. Prepare for integration before your psychedelic experience.
Successful integration starts with intention. Setting a clear intention is an important part of preparation for a psychedelic encounter and should occur before you ingest any psychedelic substance. An intention is a goal, desire, aim, purpose, or a problem you would like to work through. Intentions can relate to any part of your being, including your physical body, emotions, spiritual life, or mental health. When setting your intention, write it down in a journal or somewhere where you can easily find it and it won’t be lost. After the experience, return and review your intention. In many cases, psychedelics will reveal information that relates to your intention in unexpected ways. Keeping track of your intention is essential for integration as it allows you to go back and look at it later, sometimes much later, to see how the intention has manifested itself and to remind yourself of where you were and how far you’ve come!
Plan for rest time. In addition to setting intentions, also be sure to set aside appropriate rest time after your psychedelic experience. Going straight back to work, traveling, or shouldering major responsibilities the day after a heroic dose of mushrooms or an ayahuasca workshop is simply not a good idea. If possible, it is always advisable to book a few days off so you have time to settle, relax, and reflect after your journey. Even though psychedelics don’t carry the same negative withdrawal effects common with other drugs, it can still be distressing to have an intense, liberating experience only to immediately thrust yourself back into work.
2. Journal, draw, paint, or record the key moments of your experience.
So much happens during a single psychedelic ceremony or experience that it can be difficult to remember all the important information that arises. Some people like to journal or jot down insights during the experience (if the experience is mild enough), while others prefer to wait a little longer for the afterglow, or even until the afterglow has subsided. The exact timing is a personal choice, and may also depend on circumstances (e.g. a ceremony at night in the jungle may not be suitable for writing or recording). In any case, either during or shortly after the experience, try to record the key moments that came up for you, preferably as soon as possible.
Recording can take many forms. Journaling is one of the most common, but painting, drawing, writing poetry, or making music can also be just as expressive and useful. The important thing is to commemorate the breakthroughs or insights you have received in a way that is emotionally significant to you and will be accessible later.
Use records of your experience to guide your reflections over the coming days and weeks. Review the experience in depth, as well as the intention you set beforehand. Meditate on any teachings or insights you received and look for ways to incorporate them more fully.
3. Take adequate time for the process to unfold.
We live in a culture where quick results are expected and often demanded in any situation. The psychedelic integration process challenges us to break free of this paradigm and to slow down. Integration of a single psychedelic experience is unlikely to happen overnight, or even within a few weeks. Sometimes integration of certain intense lessons or levels of understanding literally takes years.
In general, many people within the psychedelic community recommend waiting some length of time between psychedelic ceremonies or experiences. There is no standard amount of time to wait, but a minimum of six weeks between ceremonies or experiences is recommended as a starting point. The time and space between experiences allows for much deeper reflections to unfold, and to “stick” in a meaningful way. In contrast, rushing ahead to the next ceremony may be a sign that there is inner resistance to integration, or that a person is primarily interested in recreational use or thrill-seeking, rather than having a motivation for real change.
4. Act fast with small changes; go slow with big changes.
In many instances, people feel that they receive huge insights about their lives with psychedelics, and because these insights are so revolutionary, they may feel a strong motivation and impetus to make changes extremely quickly.
Some lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking, giving up alcohol, exercising more, or making dietary changes, can be implemented immediately. If you received information about changes to your habits or addictions, take action right away. The faster you give up a habit that is negatively affecting your life, the more likely you are to be successful with that change.
Other modifications, such as decisions about a marriage or job, may need much more cautious attention. As a general rule, don’t make any drastic life decisions immediately after a ceremony or experience! Although psychedelics absolutely can provide information and reveal aspects of our lives that need changing, it is strongly recommended to wait a while before taking drastic action or making impulsive decisions with certain areas. The appropriate amount of time varies, but many integration specialists recommend a minimum of one month.
The reason for waiting, in the context of integration, is that it can often be easy to misinterpret the messages that we receive through psychedelics. The need for change may be 100% real, but the way in which that change needs to unfold may not immediately be as clear as we think it is. Therefore, take some time to reflect and meditate before making any of the following life changes:
- Ending a romantic relationship or a marriage. Participants in psychedelic sessions often gain an intense awareness regarding dysfunction in their lives, including romantic relationships. While leaving a dysfunctional relationship may be the best decision, there may be other, more cooperative ways to resolve the dysfunction. The psychedelic experience sometimes challenges us to make changes that will allow us to move through the dysfunction. Hasty decisions can lead to a great deal of pain and damage, both to yourself and your partner. Take time to reflect on the messages you have received and be sure of what your needs are before moving to the next step.
- Leaving a job or changing careers. Psychedelics can illuminate areas that need change, and it may be very clear from your psychedelic experience that you are in the wrong job field or career. However, taking enough time for integration will help you to see the best way to move forward without burning bridges or putting yourself in an unstable financial position.
- Relocating to a different country. Many people who experience psychedelics, especially while on retreat, feel a sudden, strong calling to leave their previous life and relocate to Peru, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico, or Brazil, etc. Be aware that these feelings are quite common. They tend to arise in response to strong emotion in the moment, and may not genuinely reflect the best decision for your life. It is always better to reflect on these major choices for an extended period of time before committing yourself to actions that may lead to a lot of stress, chaos, and potential disappointment.
- Confronting or reconciling a difficult relationship (e.g. with a parent, child, sibling, friend, or someone who has caused trauma). Another common theme when working with psychedelics is a realization about important relationships in one’s life, such as parent/child relationships, friends, or someone who has caused trauma. Participants often feel a strong, urge to reach out to these people, either as a form of reconciliation or confrontation. Often there is a sense of urgency.. Although working through difficult relationships is a key part of integration, it is equally important not to rush this process. Give yourself sufficient time to develop a clear intention about how to proceed, as well as clarity about how the process should best unfold.
- Assuming that you have “special” powers or abilities as a shaman, medium, or spiritual teacher. The power and potency of psychedelics can often reveal parts of ourselves that we had no idea existed. Psychedelics are also particularly effective in shaking up rigid world views and opening our eyes to the mysteries of consciousness. At the same time, one common pitfall in this area is that participants frequently feel that they are “special,” “chosen,” or have particular powers as a healer or shaman. Without the time required for full integration, there is a major risk of developing delusions, grandiosity, ego-inflation, or to slide into spiritual bypassing: a tendency to use spiritual practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional or psychological issues.
5. Adopt a daily spiritual practice.
Within the psychedelic community, many of those who have been the most successful at integrating their experiences are those who have adopted some form of spiritual practice, either before interacting with psychedelics or as part of the integration process. Implementing a spiritual practice is deeply personal and does not require adherence to any particular belief system. Atheists and agnostics can engage in spiritual practice alongside devout believers.
The purpose of a daily spiritual practice is to function as a focal point, to bring intention and awareness to your inner work, thus extending the processes that began in your psychedelic experience.
Daily spiritual practice can include, but is not limited to:
- Meditation. This can include mindfulness meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, dance, or any form of meditation that speaks to you, personally.
- Prayer. Again, this can take many forms, and does not require specific beliefs. Prayers can be spoken, sung, chanted, or even wordless, as in dancing, lighting a candle or burning incense (smudging).
- Reflections and intentions. This might include journaling, recording the steps of your journey thus far, setting intentions for the day/week/month, or studying an inspirational piece of writing, like a scriptural text or poem.
- Yoga, tai chi, or other physical movement. For some people, movement is the best way to center and to express themselves spiritually. Do whatever practice most calls you.
6. Seek professional guidance.
Because integration is such an important topic in the psychedelic world, psychedelic integration specialists are becoming increasingly common. If you are struggling with a particularly challenging or thorny experience, it may be time to seek guidance from a professional. Integration specialists are familiar with psychedelic landscapes and can help you navigate potentially stormy waters. Integration specialists are not the same as psychedelic therapists. Instead of guiding you during a psychedelic experience, they focus specifically on integration and the post-psychedelic part of the journey.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has compiled a list of psychedelic integration specialists. When choosing a psychedelic integration specialist, it is worth considering a few factors:
- What qualifications does this person have? Integration specialists may be certified counselors, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, life coaches, energy workers, clergy, shamans, or any combination of the above. Choose someone whose qualifications are verifiable and make you feel comfortable. Check for reviews and testimonials. If someone feels “off” for any reason, they probably are not a good fit for you.
- Which substances has this person worked with? Not all psychedelics are the same. If you are integrating an ayahuasca experience, you will probably want guidance from someone who understands ayahuasca. The same goes for any other psychedelic substance.
- Do you connect with this person? As with any form of therapy, it is important to work with someone that you connect with on a basic level. If you don’t feel a solid connection after your first session, try someone else, and keep trying until you find the right match for you.
- Will this person keep you accountable and inspire you? Along with a basic human connection and compatibility, a good psychedelic integration specialist will actively assist you in unpacking your thought patterns and gently push you. Make sure you communicate your goals and desires as clearly as possible. Be willing to open up and be accountable, once trust has been established.
7. When the time is right, put the change into action.
You have had a life-changing, earth-shaking psychedelic experience and have taken time to reflect on the key lessons and insights you received. Maybe you’ve already made lifestyle changes and have also been careful not to make any hasty, impulsive decisions. Perhaps you’ve also introduced a daily meditation to help yourself stay grounded and centered, or sought guidance from a professional. You are on the path to integration: keep going!
Like many things in life, integration only “works if you work it.” You can have all the insights in the world through psychedelics, but they are only meaningful in a lasting way if you actually put those insights into concrete action. Psychedelics only show us the door; we have to walk through it. The work of implementing the lessons learned can be a challenge, but it is through accepting and embracing this challenge that real growth emerges.
Annie Lewkowicz has an MA in Transformational Psychology as well as a background in literature and education. In 2014, ayahuasca cured Annie’s chronic depression and opened her eyes to the wonderful, mysterious world of psychedelics. Since then, Annie has continued to go deeper into the world of entheogens and consciousness exploration, often participating as a helper and musician in sacred plant ceremonies. She is deeply committed to the transformative potency of psychedelics and believes that plant medicines have the power to change individuals and society. When not writing or editing, Annie can be found enjoying time with her husband and young son, reading, gardening, and making music with her ever-growing collection of world instruments.