On this episode transcript of the Psychedelic Passage podcast, co-founders Jimmy Nguyen and Nick Levich take a deep dive into psychedelic-assisted journeys.
You’ll explore everything from typical screening/ onboarding processes, to preparation logistics, the importance of setting ground rules, and exactly what should be expected on ceremony day. Without further ado, let the journey begin!
Episode 2: How Does a Guided Psychedelic Journey Work?
Nicholas Levich: Welcome to the Psychedelic Passage podcast. My name is Nick Levich, and I’m here with Jimmy Nguyen. Thank you for joining us today.
This week we are talking about the expectations of an intentional psychedelic experience as well as how this process truly works. So what I want to start with today is once you’ve committed to exploring this process as a journeyer, what actually happens next?
And the big caveat here is that there’s no one size fits all. Every single facilitator, retreat center, church, wherever you explore this type of experience, are all going to have a different kind of nuanced approach. But what we want to do is take you through some of these common building blocks that really make up the story arc or the full start-to-finish process of an intentional psychedelic experience.
So Jim, do you want to start by discussing where does somebody go? What’s next after you’ve committed that this is something that you want to do?
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, sure. So the picture that I paint in my mind is – you are the journeyer or you are the potential client, or you’re the person who wants to embark on a psychedelic experience.
And regardless of whether you’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, or you just read Michael Pollan’s book, or you just watched a documentary and whatnot, you’ve now committed to having an intentional psychedelic experience and then what?
And so you’re likely going to start, if you are internet savvy and internet capable, by doing your search online. And through that there is also kind of a gap on actionable, tangible information out there that you’ll be able to tap into to find the right service for you.
So I think that this all starts first and foremost with your intentions, really thinking about the reason why you are walking into a psychedelic experience because your intentions will also shape your needs, they’ll also shape your wants and your expectations and then that will also help you to better clarify what the right services are around there for you.
So once you’ve clarified your intentions and then of course, that will be an evolving thing right, as you start off with, ‘hey, these are my one to three reasons for moving into psychedelic experience’, then once you get the service that’s right for you and move into a ceremony, those intentions can certainly evolve and shift.
Nicholas Levich: It’s also worth noting that we’ve done a prior episode on how to actually find the guide. And so once you’ve found the guide, that’s where we’re kind of starting this journey here today.
To Jim’s point, you’re going to set your intentions in terms of what’s your motivating factor, what are you seeking here? And then once you find your guide, likely if they’re savvy and they should be, the first thing they’re going to do is take you through a screening and intake process. So what does that look like?
The Screening & Intake Process
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, so the screening and intake process is twofold. At the same time that the facilitator or professional service provider is verifying and qualifying you as a client, you are also qualifying and verifying them as a facilitator. And so there are some general things that people should be aware of leading into a psychedelic experience.
One is are you physically fit to undergo a psychedelic experience? And the two main things that I look for when I am screening and onboarding clients is any history of cardiac issues or medical history, any issues of a respiratory nature and medical history.
And then from there you’ll want to make sure that you’re very clear with whoever your potential facilitator is about, any diagnoses, whether medical diagnoses, mental health diagnoses, any medications that you’ve taken.
And all of this information will be helpful not only to qualify you for the experience, but also to just ensure that you can move through this experience safely. And then on the other side of it, you should also be asking the facilitator questions about their certifications background, their level of professional experience, have they worked with these substances before, have they worked with clients in a similar need and intention and profile of yours?
And I will express that onboarding, screening, lead facilitator introduction process, can take as little or as long as you feel is right for you. So I talk to some folks, clear on a number of things, and after one or two conversations and after filling out the appropriate stuff, we’re like, ‘okay, now we’re ready to move forward’.
I also have other clients who take a lot of time. They take two, three, six months before they feel like, ‘okay, you’re the right facilitator and I feel good moving forward in this process’.
Nicholas Levich: Awesome, thank you for that context. And one of the other questions that someone may have when listening, as you alluded to Michael Pollan being a potential gateway into not only research but also committing to this process. So for those who are unaware, who is Michael Pollan and why is he important in a lot of people’s processes around committing to this journey?
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, so I bring up Michael Pollan a lot because he tends to be a catalyst for people in their exploration of psychedelic experiences. And so the main crux of why I talk about Michael Pollan is that he wrote this book, How to Change Your Mind, which chronicles not only his own experiences with psychedelics.
I believe Michael Pollan has a history of being like a food writer and talks a lot about the intersection of food and science and diet and all that stuff. So I think it’s actually really interesting because Michael Pollan comes from a different industry and a different background and so he has a very, I think objective look on folks who are encountering psychedelics for the first time.
Nicholas Levich: He bridged the gap.
Jimmy Nguyen: For sure.
Nicholas Levich: He made it accessible. Because he made a name for himself before psychedelics, he made it acceptable for the boomer generation, older and younger, but especially the boomer generation, that this was real, this wasn’t just a thing for hippies or for folks who were off the spiritual deep end or whatever the case may be, that this had real tangible applications for mental and emotional health issues that generally plague our western world.
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a misnomer, it’s the propaganda, the war on drugs, all that stuff. And I think the narrative was, ‘oh well, if you’re exploring psychedelics, you’re some type of degenerate to society, you’re non-contributing to society and there’s no acceptable use and social value to this’.
And then here comes a guy who has already been well respected in his own field saying ‘actually this was my experience’. And one thing that I think is really important in his book is that he talks about the importance of a guide, facilitator or professional supporter.
So most folks who read that book come out of that not only normalizing what you’re saying Nick, normalizing their own interest in psychedelics. Meaning like surprise, you’re not a bad human being if you’re interested in psychedelic use.
And then the second part that comes out of it is people very overwhelmingly realize, ‘oh, I do need professional support, I do need a guide here’. So Michael Pollan seems to be one of the entry points for a lot of people.
There’s also a lot of celebrities, researchers, amateur mycologists like Paul Stamets, who also get people interested and intrigued. But I’d say 90% of the people who inquire about our services start by, ‘well, I read Michael Pollan’s book and then now I have some questions for you’.
Nicholas Levich: Great, thank you for that. And so you read Michael Pollan’s book or you listen to a celebrity interview or you read the Johns Hopkins literature and go, ‘there’s something to this, there’s profound healing power, this can maybe help me’. And then you look for a guide which we’ve detailed how that works in a prior episode and then you commit to this process and find your guide.
And then you start the screening and intake which you touched on, kind of how that works. We’re looking for mental health issues, physical health issues, anything that could potentially be a safety to you as a journey or to the facilitator holding space for you.
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, and I’ll add really quickly that those things don’t exclude you from a psychedelic experience. What it says is that if you’re moving into a psychedelic experience, you should probably have somebody who is well versed in whatever that thing is.
So if you’re dealing with an eating disorder, maybe you do find a facilitator who at least has a little bit of experience with that and then maybe you work in conjunction with somebody who is a nutritionist or a dietitian or an eating disorder specialist. It’s kind of this matchmaking between your needs, what’s going on with you, and then going out and trying to find that facilitator or person who best matches your needs. And then there’s different layers.
So we’re talking about more like content needs, more situational needs, but then there’s also geography and location and availability of the facilitator, whether you’re willing to travel, whether you want a facilitator to travel to you and whatnot.
Nicholas Levich: So let’s say that you found your match and you’ve been through the screening process and the facilitator is like, ‘okay, I’m willing to work with you’ and you as a journeyer are like, ‘okay, I feel comfortable, you’re my facilitator’, then what?
Preparing for a Psychedelic Experience
Jimmy Nguyen: I think it’s important to have a conversation about logistics. So from there you’re now thinking about, okay, how far out feels intuitively right for me to book a session, a ceremony or some type of an event. And then that will allow you to almost reverse engineer how long your preparation session goes, to think about, ‘okay, my integration process after the experience’.
And so much of this is dependent on what’s going on in your life. So what I find with folks is a lot of people reach out for psychedelic services during the summer or during winter break because they’re like, okay, I’m off of work, I have a little bit of time now that I can focus, which can be different if you embark on a psychedelic experience on a Friday and then you have to return to work on a Monday.
So a lot of these considerations play into what’s going on in your life, how much capacity and bandwidth that you have to focus on your own healing journey and intentional psychedelic experience. And that should then match up to the availability and the ability for that facilitator to hold space for you. I think about this in layers of needs.
There’s the need obviously, to find somebody that you feel very comfortable, safe with and whatnot, and then you expand on that by saying ‘is that person also equipped to hold space for me in this particular intention or this particular reason for moving into a psychedelic experience’?
And then there’s the logistic kind of nature to it. Does this all match up schedule wise? Does this align with my budget?
Nicholas Levich: I want to move past that. So once we get past logistics, you get a date on the calendar for the actual ceremony. That’s kind of this process you’re describing about, people don’t know how this works, right? So the average person has never been through this process, they don’t know what to expect, they don’t know how it works.
And so they put this date on the calendar and then they’re like, what do I do? What do I expect? How does this work? And so I kind of want to paint this picture of what the story arc looks like for a journeyer from that point.
So you’ve got this date on the calendar and from my perspective, the next step is you immediately start prep. Because the second you’ve committed to this journey, that’s when the journey actually starts?
Taking a Personal Inventory
Nicholas Levich: I think there’s a misunderstanding that the journey only takes place when you consume the psychedelic medicine. But there’s this interesting phenomenon that happens by the time you commit to the journey on your calendar, all your stuff starts to bubble up. Everything that you’ve repressed, everything that you’ve suppressed, everything that you’ve shoved down and buried, it starts to come to the surface.
And so it’s really important that people understand that by the time they’ve made this commitment, that’s actually when the healing starts, when the work starts, when the journey starts, and if you find a truly suitable adept facilitator or retreat center, there’s going to be preparation. And personally, I don’t think preparation can be done in any less time than two weeks.
I think two weeks is the minimum amount of time required to do prep adequately, but it may extend far longer than that. It could be several months. But for someone who’s never been through prep, what should they expect as far as what happened in that process? We can do a whole episode on prep and we probably will, but just like a spark notes on it.
Jimmy Nguyen: And I will agree with you to say that there are two real key events of commitment. One is when you make the actual commitment to seek psychedelic services and whatnot and move towards a ceremony.
Then the second s*** gets super real, when you then have a date on the ceremony and you put down a deposit and that you’ve paid because then you’re moving towards this date, which to your point can start to bring up a lot of stuff for you internally, the content and the things.
That your whole goal is to bring some of these things up to the surface so that you can properly address them and process them and move through them. And so preparation looks different for each organization.
Like, let’s say you go on an international retreat, maybe they do send you a little bit of guidance, maybe you do have a prep session before you show up. But a lot of that is in a group setting. Usually in that international retreat setting, I can at least speak to the spark notes of what preparation looks like for us at Psychedelic Passage.
Jimmy Nguyen: And I’ll also say that depending on your intentions and your needs and the situations in your life, you may need a longer or shorter preparation session depending on your unique position. So in the preparation process, when I talk to clients, I talk about a couple of major pieces. One is to have a facilitator help you and reflect back to you and help you organize your intentions.
And usually people have like a myriad, some people show up with a long laundry list. And I think that what it typically comes down to is distilling that into one to three to five core intentions.
Meaning if you weren’t able to address everything, if there was even one of those things that you were able to address, would that be the closest to the core of whatever your needs are or whatever your motivating factor or reason of being is? And then from there, it’s then about developing some tools, frameworks and skill sets to not only navigate your psychedelic experience, but to do so in a way that aligns with your intentions.
And that’s both in navigating the actual experience, meaning like tangible stuff like setting up the space in the room and talking about maybe some dosage ranges and things like that, all the way to, ‘hey, I might have this really challenging trauma in my life and what do I do if that comes up? What does the support look like? What type of things should I be thinking about so that I can navigate that really effectively and really well.’
And then I would say that the other part of preparation is what you were already talking about, Nick, which I share with my clients. I call this a pre-excavation process where in my belief, the whole point of an intention is to take all of the parts of you, bring them up to the surface so that they are more readily available to be interacted with by the plant medicine.
Imagine if you don’t do any preparation and you walk into a psychedelic experience well, with your communion with the plant medicine, you’re going to waste a lot of time bringing things that are deeply buried within you up to the surface. And you only have a limited amount of time when you’re working with a particular psychedelic medicine. Like a psilocybin experience ranges on average from four to five and a half hours.
And so if you’re spending three of those hours dredging things up to the surface, then you’re using a lot of utility or wasting a lot of utility in that experience. And so the preparation process is like, how do I bring as much of that stuff up to the surface as I can before the ceremony?
Nicholas Levich: Okay, so we’ve been through prep. We’ve set our intentions, we got our tools to navigate an altered state of consciousness. We’ve asked all of our logistical questions.
We feel like we’ve got a game plan as to how to move forward into the ceremony or the journey, whatever word you want to use to describe the actual psychedelic event where you commune with that plant medicine.
Nicholas Levich: So you show up on the day of the journey and then people want to know, how does this work? Like, what am I actually preparing for? What does it look like?
And acknowledging fully that it’s going to be different with every person, every setting. It’s never going to be the same and it’s impossible to predict, but I want to give people an understanding as to what kind of themes emerge in these journeys and logistically, what’s happening?
Am I on a hike in the woods? Am I home? Am I in an office? Am I on the couch? What’s going on here that’s facilitating this actual experience of healing?
Choosing a Location
Jimmy Nguyen: There’s a lot of layers to what you’re posing. So I’ll try to break down as much as I think in my mind and I’d love your help in trying to fill in the gaps here, but by the time you move into the ceremony you will have already made the decisions regarding your location and timing and all of that.
I do think that there’s a lot of interest in people having psychedelic experiences in nature where they can kind of commune with nature and all of that. I think there’s a lot of merit to that. I’ll say first and foremost that if this is your first time, likely you should be in a little bit more of a familiar space because there’s probably a lot of potential significance in healing there.
And then on a hike you realize, ‘oh, I need to go to the bathroom’. And then you realize, ‘oh, I actually need more water than I brought with me’. So primarily you should be in an environment that first takes care of your needs, which usually is in, at least for us, the comfort of your own home or another private residence.
Hopefully the legality of this opens up where people can also have other options of where to do this. At a minimum, the facilitators should be spending time with you before, during and after the psychedelic experience.
So I always advise people when they meet their facilitator to not jump right into ‘okay, well, let me eat these 6 grams of mushrooms’ because you have to have a lot of prudence around your set and setting. You have to have a lot of prudence around the container that you’re in.
Setting Ground Rules
Jimmy Nguyen: The most important thing is to establish ground rules with your facilitator or at least have your facilitator establish ground rules with you. So what does support look like if you’re going through a challenging experience? Is there going to be consensual non-sexual touching at any point?
What happens if I do decide that I want to go outside or that I need to take a break or that I need to have a breath of fresh air like the facilitator? And you should be agreeing on and establishing those things so that you’re not doing it on the fly during the psychedelic experience because the whole goal of having a facilitator around is so that all you need to do is focus on the experience yourself. So that kind of pre-ceremony part, I’ll call it.
Or the point from when you meet with your facilitator on the day of ceremony all the way through to the moment that you commune with the medicine that can look a lot of different ways with people, but at a very base, you should talk about set and setting, which I use a larger term, setting the container for this. You should talk about ground rules and you should talk through about the cadence and somewhat of what that support will look like for you during that day.
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, you can talk about recommended dosage. And so this is a little tricky, right, because these are still federally illicit substances. And so we take on the frame of, ‘hey, we can only make a recommendation of range for you, and then you’ll have to kind of land on your own dosage there’.
But it’s even things like, how do I consume this? Am I making a tea? Am I making a smoothie? Am I eating them directly? How do I know whether the effects are kicking in or not? Maybe I do need a booster dose. And then what’s your protocol and practice for that?
So just getting on the same page with your facilitator on how they go about doing things will help you to ease your mind to be like, okay, there’s a plan in place. There’s a reasonable expectation on how this all goes about so that you’re not guess working through the experience.
Nicholas Levich: When we’re talking about a therapeutic experience, I think people are curious about what actually happens. And so the best way I can sum this up is regardless of whether you’re in a Johns Hopkins clinical trial or you’re in your own home or you’re in a retreat style format, you are likely going to be seated or lying down, typically on a couch, a mat, a bed, something of the sort.
And the idea here is to create physical comfort for your body. People use blankets, weighted blankets, eye masks for those who choose, really, so that you’re facilitating an internal introspective journey where you’re really removing a lot of this external stimuli. Central to pretty much every journey format is going to be music, typically played out loud or through headphones.
And so you can start to kind of visualize a potential journey or what this may look like as far as just where your physical body is. Where is the facilitator in relation to you? Are they seated next to you? Are they in the center of the room? Is there an altar or a centering space?
And so all of this is up for discussion and there’s no set rule on how this works, but I think that it’s important for people to understand that a therapeutic journey is oriented much more like that versus taking mushrooms and going to a fish show or something. Like the whole experience is oriented differently.
And so it’s about creating this environment where you can truly let go. Generally, as humans, we’re not good at that.
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah. I’ll also say that taking mushrooms at a fish show probably has its own utility and benefit, but it’s certainly not for intentional-
Nicholas Levich: -not for first timers.
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. What I find are people who take psychedelics for recreational or entertainment purposes and then they start to have these real deep breakthroughs, but they’re in the middle of a crowd, they’re like, ‘well what do I do with any of this?’ But you’re so right.
I get so many questions from people who are like, well, do I keep my eyes open? Do I keep my eyes closed? Should I be sitting up or should I be laying down? Should I XYZ? I think it’s kind of this notion that if I do all of these things correctly in this checklist, that I’m going to get my max benefit from the psychedelic experience.
And I would share that it is about moving through the psychedelic experience in a way that feels the most intuitively right for you. So sometimes I have clients who have their eyes closed during some of it and they’re deeply internal. I also have some clients who engage in dialogue and some things like that too.
Jimmy Nguyen: I would say that the common trends that I find, especially with psilocybin, is that when you commune with the medicine, it takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes for the effects to start to kick in. And then in that first kind of phase, I always tell folks that the medicine is kind of scanning you a little bit. It’s kind of checking you out, seeing how much prep you’ve been doing, really getting an idea of your intentions and then really determining, ‘okay, this is where the psychedelic experience needs to go for whatever need that you have’.
And so Nick says this thing that’s really awesome, ‘you always get what you need, not what you want’. And then the other piece that’s worth me bringing up is in the beginning of most psychedelic experiences, there can sometimes be, not for everybody, can sometimes be this kind of conflict space or this kind of internal battle or (internal) space struggle.
It’s a struggle because it’s all the parts of you that have been super used to being in control. And then the psychedelic medicine enters your system and all the parts of you have alarms and bells and red flags going off. Meaning like, it’s like, ‘no, we’ve got to get back to being back in control’. And so that can be a really common aspect for people depending on how much control and rigidity of mind and things that you have in your life.
But the key here is that you’ve already selected the facilitator. You’ve already been really thoughtful about your process and so hopefully you’re in an optimally safe environment that will allow you to surrender or will allow you to lean into the presence of the experience and be very present minded through it.
And I find that most people who have that conflict, then try to control it, are like, ‘oh, there’s this conflict. I shouldn’t be having this conflict, so let me control it’. And then that puts them in a control spiral because they’re trying to control the parts of them that are trying to control things, it pulls them out of the present.
So I could talk about that for a very long time. But it’s just worth noting that for some folks there can be that initial struggle or conflict as they step in or lean in.
Nicholas Levich: I mean, what I’ve seen is that’s why a guide is there and a lot of people are able to work through it with the presence of a guide, whether it’s through verbal cues or physical touch or adjustments, mantras, whatever the case may be. And so for someone who makes it through that period, I mean, everyone makes it through at some point. Some people just hang out there longer than others.
But there’s this core journey piece that’s going to last anywhere from two to 5 hours. But the whole experience you’re looking at is like six to 8 hours from the second you get with your facilitator to the end. Assuming you’re sitting with psilocybin. And most folks are going to be in an altered state for the remainder of that day.
It’s going to take a night of sleep before you kind of wake up and feel, you know, totally back to normal. Albeit your new normal. We’ll do a whole episode on integration, but what happens once people leave that container that day of the journey or ceremony?
Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, well, it’s important to say that you’re going to commune with the medicine. There’s going to be a come up phase, you’re going to have your peak experience and then there will be this kind of landing phase and then an afterglow kind of period. And so you will always come back to sobriety.
That’s one thing that I tell my clients because one huge trigger is they’re in the middle of their experience and like, oh, this is going to last forever or I’m never going to come back to sobriety. And these medicines work in that way where you’re always going to come back to sobriety after the experience.
Jimmy Nguyen: Hopefully the facilitator is staying with you for a period of time and that’s the time to reground, take care of your bodily needs. Maybe it’s getting a little bit of food in you, getting a little bit more of a savory meal, just taking care of your needs because you’ve been through a rather large and probably taxing experience.
And then the other thing to note is that after a psychedelic experience, you’re likely going to still be pretty raw and vulnerable from an emotional and mental capacity. But then also you’re probably going to be fairly sensitive to stimuli.
And that could be audio stimuli, visual stimuli, social stimuli, conversations with people might be a little overwhelming. And so my key takeaways with folks after an experience is be kind and gentle to yourself and take care of your needs.
At some point the facilitator will leave and then that will be up to you whether you want to maybe have your emergency contact or somebody who is in your care to keep you company or you may just spend that time solo. But we always advise people not to drive for at least 12 to 24 hours afterwards and then that afterglow period can be just as meaningful as the ceremony itself.
So even though most of the psychedelic effects have worn off, I have a lot of clients report, ‘wow, that period afterwards where I was just journaling’ or maybe ‘I was sleeping and dreaming’ or maybe ‘I was still connecting the dots’ – there’s a lot of utility and a lot of value in that afterglow, come down period as well.
Nicholas Levich: Yeah, and so that afterglow officially marks the start of integration. And integration is this word that you’ll hear thrown around a lot when it comes to intentional psychedelic use. And for those who are unfamiliar, it’s really about taking the insights, realizations, downloads from the journey, and beginning to implement them into your everyday life.
The idea being – how can you embody the change that you seek without relying on this external substance? Because the goal is to show up in the world the way that you want to without needing to rely on anything external. And so this integration process starts immediately after the journey and from my perspective continues for the rest of your life.
But for the purposes of completing the story arc, ideally you’ll have an integration session within a week after the journey with your facilitator or some sort of support professional, and then anywhere from one to an unlimited number of sessions after that in the coming weeks or months.
And so from start to finish, this whole process can take anywhere from four to six weeks and it’s important for people to understand that it is more than just the journey itself. So that really brings us to the end of our session for the day. I hope this is helpful for you as far as understanding expectations as well as kind of what it looks like when you commit to one of these experiences.
You can download episodes of the Psychedelic Passage podcast. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Amazon, Spotify and IHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcast. Thanks again for joining today and we’re looking forward to seeing you next week.
To all of the psychedelic enthusiasts sitting across this screen, we invite you to check out some more informative content on our blog page. If you’re looking to embark on a therapeutic psychedelic experience or simply want to learn more about our process and the resources available to you, we empower you to book a consultation with us! That’s all for now our fellow psychonauts. Safe journey!