Going through a psychedelic experience can put you in an extremely vulnerable position. Choosing wisely the people who will be guiding and watching over you during such an experience is therefore crucial. This is not only true when it comes to avoid abuse and misconduct but also (unconscious) influence on one’s personal belief system, values and ideas.
Luckily, it only takes a little bit of research to learn what retreats should be providing in order to guarantee a safe experience: psychological and medical screening, proper preparation and integration, experienced and skilled facilitators, medical supervision – to name a few. But there is more to look out for than safety and proper preparation and integration.
Spirit and ethos of the retreat are crucial
When you are looking for the right retreat provider for your psychedelic experience, you should get to know their “spirit and ethos“. What we mean by that is their views on psychedelics, religion, science and spirituality (the “spirit” part of it) but also the way they interact with participants as well as with one another, the language and symbols they use and the role they associate themselves within the experience (the “ethos” part of it).
For example, the spirit and ethos of an Ayahuasca ceremony lead by a Shaman is a very different one than from a clinical study in a hospital. While one experience might be questionable in terms of ethical standards and power imbalance, the other one might lack a feeling of warmth and connection or lack consideration of everything that doesn’t fit into a materialistic worldview. But it gets more complicated than that.
High suggestibility as an important factor
Because of the high suggestibility that comes along with a psychedelic journey, the spirit and ethos informing your psychedelic experience might not only have an impact on the quality of the experience itself but also on your beliefs, values and views on the world. This is because you might be very much influenced by the beliefs, values and views of the people watching over you. Even though these values and beliefs might not necessarily be explicitly expressed or offered to you. The music that will be playing during the psychedelic experience, the objects that are present (e.g. a ceremonial altar with crystals, herbs, pictures etc), the words that are spoken to you,but also the general belief system of the people facilitating your journey: they all have the potential of influencing you – maybe even permanently.
Next to the problem of suggestibility, there is also the danger of romanticizing and idealizing the people, the place and the psychedelic experience itself. In a paper by Timmermann et al. from 2020 it is argued that
“(…) the specific features of the psychedelic experiences may act as a double-edged sword. While it may drive therapeutic benefits, the ability of psychedelics to induce hypersuggestibility as feelings of reverence and revelation might leads to problematic effects in the absence of ethical guidelines regulating their use, especially considering the blurry distinction between accepted and forced persuasion“ (Timmermann et al., 2020).
People who are already in a vulnerable position even before joining the retreat are in particular danger of being (un)consciously influenced by the spirit and ethos of a retreat. Oftentimes, these are people who just went through major life changes like divorce, unemployment, bereavement or who have severe (mental) health challenges and are desperately looking for something – or someone – to rescue them from their suffering. The more vulnerable you are, the more careful you should be.
How you can learn about the spirit and ethos of the retreat provider
But how do you find out what the spirit and ethos of a retreat is before participating yourself?
Most retreat providers do have a website or are at least using social media channels. If they don’t have any public information about them available, then you should ask why. The way they publicly talk about not only their retreats but also psychedelics in general might already give you an idea of the spirit and ethos of the retreat. Some retreat providers have ethical guidelines and values or have pledged to those of external organizations like The North Star Ethics Pledge or the Code of Conduct from the Guild of Guides
Of course, a shiny website and a formal pledge are no guarantee and you should definitely dig deeper. We recommend to ask for an exploration call – ideally with someone who will also be present during the retreat – where you should be able to ask your questions and find out more about their spirit and ethos.
To make things easier for you, we are sharing a few things that you can ask about and look out for and how we handle them for our retreats at Evolute:
What’s their view on religion, spirituality and culture?
The most obvious question is whether the retreat promotes or is related to a certain religion, path of spirituality or cultural background.
Psychedelics have been consumed for thousands of years for different ritualistic purposes. They were used to initiate young community members into their adulthood, to heal people from diseases or to cast out – but also summon – evil spirits. A lot of this wisdom has been lost but there are still indigenous people who practice the sacred use of psychedelic plants. It is not uncommon that those traditions are “exported” to other parts of the world and offered to people there. Think about underground Ayahuasca retreats in the outskirts of almost every major city in Europe. This does not only raise questions of cultural appropriation but also of whether these traditions are doing more harm or good when they are ripped out of their cultural context. What might be beneficial for someone living in an indigenous tribe in the Peruvian rainforest might not necessarily be as helpful to someone living in London city. So, you should be aware of the religious, spiritual and cultural context of the retreat. Which religious or spiritual ideas does it cater? Do they resonate with you? Do the facilitators have a similar cultural background like you do? And are the facilitators appropriately trained in the tradition they are claiming to promote?
At Evolute Institute, we design our programs and retreats so that they meet the needs and expectations of people who have been socialized in the so-called Western parts of the world – just like our team. Importantly, we try to be open but neutral when it comes to questions of faith or spirituality. We believe that the most ethical approach is to not actively promote any specific beliefs. And yet this doesn’t mean that there is no room for what our participants believe in. We invite participants to connect to, and possibly also challenge, their personal beliefs in several moments during our retreats. But we restrain from promoting any particular views or dogmas. That being said: there is no such thing as pure neutrality and of course we have a certain view on the world that doesn’t stay invisible to participants. We believe, for example, in personal agency and encourage participants to take responsibility for their actions. We draw inspiration not only from modern psychology but also from various wisdom traditions: For example, some of our exercises and also some poems are connected to the Dao, the Buddhist and the Yogic traditions. However, we are mindful that the messages that are conveyed through them are not directive and leave space for different interpretations – depending on each and everyone’s personal beliefs.
What’s their view on science?
Are they aware of and do they communicate about scientific research on use, benefits and risks of psychedelics? Are they able to critically educate participants about it?
For us at Evolute Institute, science provides the most promising way of understanding psychedelic experiences, their use, benefits and risks in a way that can be measured and analyzed. And it can help us to avoid spiritual bypassing and other short-cuts, biases and avoidances. To be clear: science most certainly doesn’t have all the answers, has its own blind spots as well as limitations – and there is a lot that it cannot (yet) explain about psychedelic experiences. But that doesn’t mean that the little that we know doesn’t matter. We are using a diverse set of empirically backed approaches to create a safe, effective, and warm container for our participants. Our medical and psychological team is doing their best to stay on top of the most recent academic research on psychedelics – especially when it comes to potential contraindications or other risks associated with the use of psychedelics.
It is also important to us to educate our participants about the basic mechanisms of psychedelics
so that they are aware of what they are singing up for.
What’s their view on psychedelics and psychedelic experiences?
What meaning do the retreat facilitators assign psychedelic substances and psychedelic experiences? Do they believe psychedelics can heal you? Do they carry messages from the gods, or the plants? Are they reflections from our unconsciousness? Or are they even just random?
We at Evolute Institute believe that psychedelic substances are powerful tools that can create a unique momentum for personal growth and wellbeing. But we are convinced that it needs much more in order to accomplish that. The momentum has to be channeled into making sustainable shifts in behavior and attitude – all things that you need to work on after the experience. None of the psychedelic substances is a magic pill and even though many people wish for a medicine that will finally fix all their problems, we are very upfront with our opinion that this might always remain an unfulfilled dream. There can’t be any sustainable personal growth or wellbeing without taking ownership and active participation. Which is why integration is such an important part of our curriculum. We therefore do our best to avoid that participants join with unrealistic hopes and expectations but at the same time emphasize the importance of responsibility and self-actualization as a process. For us, psychedelics don’t provide the answers to all our questions. But they do provide quite some food for thought that we can use for our growth and wellbeing.
When it comes to the psychedelic experiences themselves: no one can promise you what you will get. They can be revealing, initiating and restoring but also disturbing, frightening and disappointing – sometimes all of that in the same journey. And they can be very different for everyone and not everybody might benefit from them equally. We don’t think that everyone necessarily gets what they need (who “needs“ to be suffering for 6 hours straight in an unsafe setting and without proper support?) but we believe that you can give meaning to any experience.
We also accept the fact that ultimately no one will be able to definitely tell you whether you were shown an unknown truth, a metaphor or something random – or maybe all three. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t provide guidance when it comes to making sense of an experience. We see it as our responsibility to help participants to establish a healthy relationship to their experience and to avoid certain pitfalls like taking images from psychedelic experiences too literally or assigning the experience or the substance too much authority when it comes to important life decisions. Only you get to make meaning of your experience. But we think it is important to be open to different interpretations and to take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions.
What is the self-perception of the team?
How do they label themselves? What roles does the team assign themselves in the process? What are their responsibilities?
At Evolute Institute, we consider ourselves as facilitators and coaches. We are responsible for guiding our participants through a structured process of preparation, immersion and integration and to support them with our knowledge and skills. We are especially wary of being considered “healers” or “shamans”. We don’t consider ourselves doing the healing for others or having special healing powers. We as professional facilitators create spaces where personal development can happen, but it’s about each person’s readiness to do the inner work and about the innate intelligence of their system that will move towards processing, restoration and integration when the conditions are right. We do our best to create the right conditions, skillfully hold the space, and provide attuned support where it is appropriate and needed, but we discourage idealization or projection towards us as “healers“.
What’s the relationship between participants and retreat facilitators?
How do facilitators meet participants? Are you considered a guest (like in a wellness retreat), a participant (like in a program or training), a patient (like in a clinic), a seeker (like in a spiritual sangha) or an applicant (like in an educational program)? Do you have the right to say no and drop out? And are there any boundaries and guidelines?
At Evolute Institute, we have internal guidelines on how to interact with participants during and after the retreat. We meet the people who attend our retreats as guests and participants. As guests, because we consider it our responsibility that everyone feels taken care of during the whole program. We try to make everyone feel welcome but we also respect everyone’s privacy. And we meet them as (active) participants because we believe that the retreat experience is created through everyone’s participation and not just our facilitation. However, our participants are always in the lead when it comes to their process and participation. No one is pushed to participate in any part of the retreat and always has the possibility of skipping a session – including the psychedelic experience.
Even though we are not in a therapist-client relationship, we have similar ethical guidelines. Especially when it comes to supportive touch during a session but also romantic or sexual relationships, which are prohibited between participants and facilitators at any time, even after the retreat. Because of the risk of suggestibility and idealization we keep a professional distance from participants while still being available whenever we are needed. We want participants to focus on themselves, their inner processes and their connection to the other participants.
What are the power dynamics within the team?
Who takes when and what kind of decisions? Is the power centralized in one person or is it divided between several people? And who supervises them? Do they have a guru-like figure?
At Evolute Institute, our retreat teams usually consists of 4-5 facilitators who take turns in leading different sessions of the retreat. Most decisions regarding participants are taken within the whole team. During the psychedelic experience, the main responsibilities are divided between the medical lead and the ceremonial lead but everyone is equally holding space and supporting participants. We have internal guidelines as well as briefing and debriefing sessions in order to provide space and time to discuss different opinions and to evaluate our interaction with each other and with the participants.
Our ceremonial lead participates in peer-intervisions and has supervision from two external experts. One external supervisor is also available for team processes.
What language do they use and where does the agency rest?
Language can shape the way we think and how we perceive reality. It therefore matters what language a retreat provider uses on their website, social media channel and when talking to you. It can reveal quite a lot about both their spirit and ethos. Are they, for example, using a language that is trying to be neutral and descriptive or are there certain beliefs, values and promises attached to it?
At Evolute Institute, we try to be as neutral and descriptive as possible. We avoid words like “medicine“ or “entheogen“ and use “substance“, “truffles“, or “psilocybin“ instead. “Entheogen“ might carry the promise of meeting god and “medicine“ might suggest that one can get better by simply taking “the medicine“. In our opinion, this puts too much emphasis on the psychedelic substance and too little on the person taking them. For us, psychedelic substances are powerful tools that people can consciously and responsibly take to support their own process and their inner work.
“Healing” or processing, restoring and integrating?
It is for very similar reasons that we are also very careful with using the word “healing“. First of all, because it assumes that someone is damaged or incomplete but also because it holds a promise that we believe cannot be accomplished by simply taking a psychedelic substance. Although a psychedelic experience can have a “healing quality“, we prefer the words “processing”, “restoring“ or “integrating”. In our opinion, these words are a better reflection of the potential of psychedelics, in combination with personal responsibility when it comes to the maintenance of what has been experienced or “gained”.
Finally: Do your own research
Of course, these are just a few things to look out for and there might be many other topics that are important to you personally. But we think with the above questions we gave you something to start with. What we hope that you take away from this article that the spirit and ethos of a psychedelic retreat matter. And that you should not rely on the information shared on a website or social media channel. Instead, seek a conversation with the people who will be guiding you. Learn about their spirit and ethos and see for yourself if they resonate with you or not.