Most psychedelic enthusiasts have a fairly solid, conceptual understanding of what psychedelic-assisted therapy is. However, the lines begin to blur a little when we try to envision what exactly a psychedelic facilitator does during a client’s journey.
On this episode transcript of the Psychedelic Passage podcast, our co-founders, Nicholas Levich and Jimmy Nguyen, will be detailing the role of facilitator. What makes one facilitator’s healing philosophy different, and perhaps more ethical, than another’s?
They’ll provide clear examples of the varying scales of support that journeyers can choose to receive. Later, they’ll offer tangible steps to ensure that you, as a journeyer, have all of the necessary information to decide whether or not a facilitator is able to meet your specific therapeutic needs.
Episode 8: What is the Role of a Facilitator?
Jimmy: Alright. Welcome to the Psychedelic Passage podcast. My name is Jimmy Nguyen. I am joined here by my fellow co host, Nick Levich. Thanks for joining us. This week we’re going to talk about the role of a facilitator or a guide in a psychedelic experience.
And this topic is going to be a little bit nuanced because of the landscape right now, there’s a lot of different ways that folks can approach psychedelics. You can have solo journeys, you can be in more of a recreational setting or like an entertainment setting with yourself or friends.
So today we’re going to be focusing on intentional psychedelic experiences, whether that’s in a clinical medical setting, whether that’s in an international retreat or a group setting, or even in a one on one setting, like we focus on here at Psychedelic Passage.
The best way that I want to start this off, Nick, this conversation is like my answer to this is: it depends on the context. So I’m sure you agree, but I wonder if you want to expand on that thought a little bit.
Nick: Yeah, we’ve talked about this on a prior episode as far as getting clear as a journeyer on what kind of involvement and support you want from your facilitator or from your guide, but I think there’s a certain element of commonality that exists regardless of the person.
And so to start with, I think it’s this element of a safe, supportive, nonjudgmental space. And you emphasize containers a lot, Jimmy, but that’s basically what we’re talking about here is how do we create a safe space for what turns out to be people’s kind of most vulnerable moments to unfold where they don’t feel weirded out because there’s a random person sitting with them in that space.
How Psychedelic Facilitators Help You Reflect
Jimmy: Yeah. Okay, so what I hear you saying is that there are probably universal attributes and roles that space holders, facilitators, guides, professionals take on and then there’s probably more specific roles depending on the container, depending on the context.
I totally agree that finding somebody that can hold that safe, supportive, non judgmental space is probably one of the most important things that you can look for in a guide or a facilitator. But the way that looks is probably a little bit different depending on the journey.
Nick: Yeah, I think that’s true. And there’s another element that’s really important and this can be described a lot of different ways, but we internally here think about it as kind of- how do we clean our own mirror as a facilitator so that we can really, just in an effort, set our own stuff aside to be fully present with another human.
Because what I have found is that just being present with another human for six to 8 hours during an intentional journey in and of itself is incredibly healing to people. Most people have never had another person’s presence for six to 8 hours. It’s a form of selfless service in a way, yeah.
Jimmy: And when we talk about a mirror for our listeners who might be wondering what do they mean by that? When at least we think about our work, and I’m sure there are many other psychedelic professionals out there, we view ourselves as holding up a big a** mirror to your process.
Which means that our goal is to reflect back to you the most salient, most important things in your journey and your experience and your preparation, your integration that you are identifying. And so we can’t reflect that back to you first and foremost unless you are identifying.
But since you’re in such a complex and deep experience, sometimes you might say something or think something and there’s a lot going on. And so it’s our goal to reflect that back to you and reflect that back to you in a way that is not distorted, which means that we’re not putting our own beliefs, our own interpretations, our own dogma into it.
Because one fundamental part of the way that we practice is that you are the inner healer. Like you’re the one that has all the answers. The plant medicine can serve as this potential teacher and then the facilitator or the guide or the sitter really holds that support role.
And so what this brings up for me is that there’s kind of inherent power dynamics that go on in the journey facilitator space. And I so often get clients and journeyers who are like, ‘well I want to make sure that I’m doing this right’. Or they’ll say another thing like ‘oh, I want to make sure that I’m doing the homework that you assigned to me’. Or there’s kind of this almost inherent need for approval.
So the first thing that I share with folks is I’m like, hey, we’re equals here, approaching this psychedelic experience together and therefore that agency and co-creation of power that I talk about is so important.
And we see this in so many different relationships, mentor, mentee relationships, boss, employee, any type of relationship where you are going to a professional for support, where you don’t have that knowledge. There’s an inherent power dynamic there.
And so I think that’s really important as we’re talking about the role of the guide, facilitator, tripsitter because you should know you have an option. Like you have some choice here.
Nick: Yes. And the one other thing that I heard you talk about is you use the word ‘doing’ a lot. Am I doing it correctly? Am I doing it right? And what’s interesting is actually for both the facilitator and the journeyer, both of your only goals in this is to be actually the most loving thing that both journey or facilitator can do in that relationship. And so, you know, we’re conditioned to do.
But in reality the prep is done by the time you step into that container together and at that point, it’s actually about stepping into our state of being. I mean, we are human beings, after all.
The Fine Line Between Caretaker and Fixer
Jimmy: Yeah. As a facilitator, I’m constantly thinking about how much of my presence enriches the journey’s experience and how much of it hijacks it. And I’ll put it to you this way: a facilitator or guide or trip sitter who intervenes every time you might cry or every time that you have an emotional outburst is likely not being in the best service to you.
And so I think a really high integrity facilitator would really question, ‘okay, what is this process that the journeyer is going through? And are my actions or non action or presence, what’s the best way to really support them through this?’
Because sometimes that crying or experiencing that “negative emotion” or feeling is actually what the person needs in order to release or purge that or to get some insight in their psychedelic experience.
And so it’s really on the spot. I’ll say that the role of the guide or facilitator during a journey really needs to be in alignment with what you’re needing and seeking in your experience. And you might not know until you get there. Like, I have some folks who literally talk the entire experience and that’s their way of processing. I have other folks who talk during the experience as a way of trying to distract them from the experience.
I have folks where it’s a deeply internal experience and they’re not saying much and they’re not expressing much, but I know that there’s a ton of stuff going on inside. So it’s really contextual. And I also think it’s contextual based on what you want. So if you’re in a clinical, medical setting, that’s going to be different.
If you’re in a one on one setting, that’s going to be different. If you’re in a group setting, let’s say in an international retreat, that’s going to be different. So what are some ways, Nick, now that we’re trying to express to people that they have a choice, I guess? What are some good ways for them to discover that and express that and figure that out with their guide or facilitator?
Nick: I think there’s kind of two main things here, right? And this is how I would separate your two choices. You can either sit with someone that thinks that they know it all and they give you basically a prescriptive approach to do this, do that. This is what this means.
And they’re basically putting this all on you. As you can imagine, that’s probably, from my perspective, not the healthiest relationship. And so the flip side of that is someone who holds space for you to come to your own conclusions.
Maybe they ask questions, maybe they show up in support of you, but they’re not actually guiding the journey. And that’s why I think this whole word guide is a little bit of a misnomer. Because when I’m facilitating with somebody, I’m never like ‘hey, Jimmy, go through the green door on the left and see what you find.’ It doesn’t work that way.
And so for someone who’s never been through a psychedelic experience, I think it’s important to explain that in these medium to high dose ceremonial containers, the experience just spontaneously unfolds between you and the plant medicine. And so my job is to create a space where that journey can unfold, where I’m actually not interfering.
My presence is known, but my goal is not to steer or orient your own experience, because my personal belief is that there’s nothing that I can teach you better than the mushroom can, because those psychedelics teach through direct experience. And what that means is that we may all get these universal lessons, but we get them in our own way.
And so, Jim, you and I could both get the lesson of, hey, there’s nothing to fear, but we’re going to get it through direct experience that’s molded based on our past, our beliefs, our own individual life history. And so as a facilitator, it’s kind of naive, in my opinion, to assume that you know what’s best for the client at that point in time.
Jimmy: Yeah, I mean, ultimately we are just humans with a limited view and a limited scope. Like, everything gets processed through our worldview. And so the best that we’re doing is maybe possibly interpreting, but just noticing.
I can tell when a client is going through, let’s say, a challenging or overwhelming time. Or I can tell when a client is going through that joyful part or feeling that, like, I don’t know, unity, consciousness or whatnot.
But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I can read their mind or know the visualizations that they’re going through or know any of that stuff unless it’s the journey or the client identifying whatever that is. Maybe that’s a little verbal phrase, or maybe they say that it’s a challenging experience and whatnot. So it’s kind of a guessing game out there a little bit.
And I think that the best facilitators are conscious of what they’re doing. To your point is giving the journey or the client their full presence, meaning that there are sometimes, I mean, I say completely sober in my sitting, but there are sometimes where I get that feeling where I’m like, oh, the medicine is working.
I’m like tapping into this almost energetic space. I’m like, oh, it’s very clear that the medicine is working. And lo and behold, a couple of minutes later, the clients like, I’m feeling something.
You know, I mean, the first example of what you’re saying, like, the person who says, do this, do that, let me really guide you through the experience. Those I call those are fixer facilitators. Those are people who go out and try to fix the situation.
Well, the problem with that is that in order to fix something, it has to be broken. And you’re not broken. There’s probably things that you want to work on. There’s stuff that people have gone through that have been really challenging.
But I hold this fundamental belief that and you say this all the time, Nick, that we are simultaneously whole and broken, which means that we do have this capacity to support ourselves.
Now, I do think that there are some tangible things that the role of a guide or facilitator can do, like track time, advise on maybe some dosage parameters, or at least have a conversation about harm reduction around dosage, harm reduction things. And your physical controlling music helps people.
Nick: Going to the restroom, refilling water, getting snacks. Like anything that you feel like you need help with, the facilitator is there. And that’s where this form of service comes in.
Jimmy: Yeah. And the goal is so that you don’t have to distract yourself from the experience. Right. So if you’re feeling like your blood sugar is low and you’re like, man, like me just having this hunger pain is pulling me out of the experience, well, the facilitator should help you do that so you can get back to your experience.
Or I have many people, whether it’s unknown to me whether psilocybin is, like, an actual diuretic or not, but I have some folks who are literally popping up to go to the bathroom every 15, 20 minutes. And I know that a part of that is that, like, energetic, purging process. But just to reassure them, they’re like, is it okay that I’m going to the bathroom this often? Like, totally fine, totally normal.
Nick: It affects me that way. Personally, when I journey or even micro, I’m constantly going to the bathroom.
Jimmy: Yeah. And so there are some very tangible things that I think a good facilitator space holder can do. And they do take on that caretaker role. But I think there’s a balance. I think that there is a line that you could cross if that care doesn’t come from an altruistic or a place of integrity.
Nick: And this is that line between caretaker and fixer. It’s not my job to fix the person. It’s my job to hold a space where they can fix themselves. And this is where the whole concept of what I call “internal resourcing” comes from.
Because most people that engage in an intentional journey, they don’t want to be reliant on the medicine or reliant on another person in order to show up in the world the way that they want to.
And so what this really means is they have to build this capacity and this ability to resource from within. In other words, to draw from their own internal wisdom and strength and get through it.
And that’s why when someone’s crying and visibly going through a tough time on their journey, it’s not my job to fix that and take away the sadness or take away the pain.
It’s actually a very important part of their process that builds the capacity and the strength to be able to say, okay, I’m going through a challenging experience, but I can do it. And yes, I have another person here in case I need them, but I’m really flexing this muscle of being able to resource from within.
Jimmy: Yeah. And I talk about integration for sure, but especially during the ceremony is that one of the best things that I think a journey could do moving into a psychedelic experience is to really be clear on their needs and identify that.
And that’s really the only way that a facilitator can step in the proper light. And most of this is you doing that work. But it’s also okay to ask for a little support or to say, ‘hey, this is challenging, or man, I have no concept of time.
I feel like I’ve been stuck here needing to go to the bathroom and it feels like an eternity’, that’s all okay to say like a facilitator or I don’t even really like the word guide, honestly, it’s just got too much.
Nick: It just tends to be the most common.
Jimmy: Yeah, it’s a connotation to it. There’s too much assumption in there. But asking a facilitator to hold your hand or to sit next to you, our ways of support without that facilitator hijacking the experience.
And that little piece of human compassion might be the thing that helps you feel like you can move through that experience yourself, which is what you’re talking about, that inner resourcing.
Nick: And so the best way that I could describe this is when we establish that container as facilitators, it’s very important to delineate the ground rules.
Nick: There’s got to be a mutual, shared understanding of what your respective roles are in that space. And so one of the things that you were talking about is like, yes, it’s our job to track you as a journeyer, it’s our job to track where you are in your journey.
There’s these very distinct phases of a psychedelic journey and we’re tracking you but we’re also not mind readers. And so one of the first rules that I explain to journeyers is you need to ask for what you need. You need to ask for the support that you need.
And that in and of itself is powerful because most people are never asked, hey, how can I support you right now? And so they get a chance to go, oh wow, I need to get comfortable asking for what I need.
And we’re not conditioned for that, a lot of us. And so that’s a really important part of this process and that allows me to show up in the way that you need without having to guess.
Jimmy: Yeah, and by the way, asking for what you need in the throes of a psychedelic experience can take on a lot of different forms. I mean, most people have their verbal, linguistic and motor functions intact. For some folks you’re deep in it.
Nick: That’s usually me.
Jimmy: I’m usually just like going through a somatic process and they’re like, are you having a seizure? I’m like no, I’m good. This is some self soothing.
Establishing a Trusting Relationship With Your Facilitator
Nick: Let’s touch on that too. Because one of the other things that we hear from journeyers a lot is well, “I don’t want to embarrass myself” and “I’m nervous that you’re going to see something that’s going to freak you out or embarrass you”.
And part of my job as a facilitator is to say, look, I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen puking, I’ve seen crying, I’ve seen laughing, I’ve seen spitting, I’ve seen nausea, I’ve seen shaking, I’ve seen temperature fluctuations, bowel movements and I reassure them that there’s nothing that they can do that’s going to embarrass me.
As a facilitator I actually encourage you to get that out. And so when I see someone going through that as a facilitator I’m actually encouraging, yes, get the cry out. Yes, let the tears flow, yes, let that verbal yell out or whatever the case is like this is true bodily level catharsis.
Jimmy: And this is why I think it is a non-negotiable, absolutely vital to establish a relationship with your providers, caretaker, supporters before the psychedelic experience.
Absolutely so important because somebody can show up on the day of your ceremony and tell you ‘Hey. I’m going to hold a nonjudgmental space and you’re not going to be embarrassed. You can express yourself however you want’.
But if you don’t lay that groundwork of really having your full psyche believe that person is here in support in the best interest of me and that person does feel like somebody that I can be a weirdo around if my experience kind of takes me there. It’s so hard to establish that on the day of.
And I also think it’s really hard to establish that in a clinical medical setting because you might be at the ketamine clinic where the doctor wrote you the prescription and then you maybe work with hopefully a preparation professional but maybe it’s a nurse practitioner who’s sitting there in the room with you and you’ve never met them before.
Or maybe it’s just like a tech or an aide who’s coming in just to check your IV drip line and here you are having a vulnerable experience and then some random person walks in who you’ve never met and seen before and so that part is a little bit trickier. And of course there’s not a lot of standards of practice in the clinical medical model meaning that they’re being developed.
I think the ketamine clinics are somewhat of a test landscape for that to happen and occur and there are some places that probably aren’t even thinking about that because many of those practitioners might not have gone into a psychedelic dose of a ketamine experience themselves and known.
When you’re journeying you’re so sensitive and you pick up everything and this is probably true for most of the psychedelic substances out there where you’re just hyper aware.
Nick: Maybe we give people an example of what this looks like. So if you’re journeying and you’re sitting there on the couch, by definition you’re in an expanded state of consciousness. And let’s say you’re going through a really challenging journey. I had a client recently who was convinced he couldn’t breathe.
Okay? Now, if I, as a facilitator, am holding the frequency of, ‘oh, s***, can he not breathe? I’m worried about him.’ Panic, panic. He’s going to feel that.
But if I’m holding the frequency of it’s all, okay, this is normal, you’re totally fine. He’s going to feel that. And so there’s a word for this. It’s called “corregulation”. Basically what it means is that if two people are at different emotional states, there’s going to be this, like, equilibrium effect.
And so our job is to be anchors, to be a tether for someone that’s going through that so that they know at all times this is normal, this is okay, you’re right where you’re supposed to be.
But if you as a facilitator start freaking out because your clients are going through something difficult that would freak you out, you gotta check yourself because that’s going to spill over into the client’s experience.
Jimmy: Yeah. And somebody said to me, I’m trying to think about who said this, but I loved it. They said that in the psychedelic space holding, part of what we’re doing is we’re lending people our calm and regulated nervous systems.
And so that reminds me of the core regulation. But it’s really important that the facilitator doesn’t fake that. Maybe your client does have a breathing issue, which you should be screening for respiratory issues in advance anyways.
But if there comes a moment where maybe they are exhibiting like two, three word dyspnea or you’re seeing that they’re breathing as a little shallow or a little short or older folks who may need assisted oxygen and stuff. And so the facilitator should not be faking it in the name of keeping things all common cool.
How Psychedelic Facilitators Practice Discernment
Which is another part of the role of a facilitator, where if things are getting out of scope beyond certain issues, whether there’s a medical issue or whether somebody gets into heightened state of anxiety or a panic attack or something like that, the facilitators should have some standards and protocols on how to address and manage that. And so I’ll also say that there’s kind of different realms where this stuff happens.
Like, obviously your client felt mentally that they couldn’t breathe, but clearly you were checking on them physiologically and being like, well, you’re talking to me and it seems like you’re breathing and all good, which could be more of like a psychosomatic physiological factor. And then there are people who actually do have difficulty breathing and you know what not right.
Nick: So discernment. You as a facilitator have to use discernment to figure out what is actually happening physiologically versus what’s happening in the subjective experience of the client or the journey.
We’ve only got a couple of minutes left today, but I want to make sure we touch on what is effectively facilitator ethics and our ethical role and basically these ideas of transference and countertransference, which were really highlighted by Kylea Taylor in her book The Ethics of Caring.
But for those who haven’t read it, I think it’s important that we give just like a little spark notes, which is basically the idea of especially in these power dynamic relationships like therapist and client or journey or facilitator, it’s easy for a person, typically the facilitator, but also possible to go the other way to unconsciously transfer their beliefs over to a journey.
And this, by all accounts, is considered an ethical violation. The number one way that we guard against this on facilitators is deeply, deeply understanding ourselves and our own motivations.
And so in a very practical sense, if I have a journey or who is crying and writhing on the couch and I’m going through an internal debate of like, do I intervene or do I just sit here, I need to ask myself, okay, well, what’s my motivation for this? How do I feel about it? What would I do if I were in that situation?
Jimmy: Or are you doing it to soothe yourself or are you doing it to actually support the journey?
Nick: 100%? Yeah, exactly. And so these are the kinds of questions that a good facilitator is constantly engaged in while they’re sitting with somebody.
Jimmy: Or another example of this is like, it depends on the expectations that the facilitator has going into the experience. There are some clients who go into their experience basically ready to go to war with themselves. Or there are some clients who go into the experience expecting something a little more pleasant, a little more joyful. That’s okay.
If you’re the journeyer, if you’re the facilitator, you shouldn’t have any preconceived notions on what’s happening because if you walked into an experience thinking, oh, this one’s going to be crazy and we’re going to get ready for some spiritual warfare here, then likely you’re going to be transferring that on to the experience of your client.
And so this is also a part of polishing your mirror or what other people say is emptying your vessel. That’s another thing that folks say walking into this. And it’s really tricky. It’s really tricky because there’s no tangible marker for that. That’s not something that you can quantify in a spreadsheet or whatever, like, did I polish my mirror?
And this is especially important for folks who work at high volume and so people who go from, let’s say, one session or ceremony to the next to the next because there can be a spillover effect from your space holding with one person into another.
And I imagine that actually being something that’s probably prevalent in these ketamine clinics too that most people aren’t aware of. But first responders and medical professionals see this in their settings all the time, right?
Like, you work with somebody who’s in a real traumatic thing and then you gotta put that down and then you got to go and be of the best service to this other person. And so that’s really important. Yeah.
Nick: What I’m hearing you say is that there has to be a withholding of assumptions and expectations because basically both facilitator and journey are taking a plunge into the unknown. Every single journey is a plunge into the unknown and actually that highlights that.
One of our roles as a facilitator is to really be comfortable stepping into the unknown and that requires having commitment to your own healing work and your own journey so that you flex that muscle within your own being and then can show up for others.
Tangible Ways to Clarify The Role of a Facilitator
Jimmy: Yeah. And just to summarize, I know we’re getting towards the end of our episode here. I think there are some really tangible things that a potential journeyer can do to identify and clarify the role of your support person.
All the way from saying, hey, I just want some harm reduction here. Meaning like, you just sit in the corner and make sure that I’m not running out of my house or that I’m not slipping and falling, stuff like that.
All the way through to, let’s say, a more guided experience where you are giving your consent and your permission to the facilitator or the space holder to basically have a more involved role in your journey and your experience.
And so a couple of these things learn about the ground rules, identify what you need, be really clear on what would be the most supportive things for you. And all of this happens before the ceremony. Like all of that stuff, it’s all leading up to the container that you build in ceremony. I’m probably missing some tangible things here.
Nick: Ask how many times they’ve journeyed. Ask them if they’ve got a healing philosophy, how they just approach the work as a whole. Ask them how they approach consent and physical touch. Ask them if they have an understanding of ethical frameworks.
It’s your job as a journeyer to treat it like an interview process where you’re getting to know the guide in an effort to see whether they’re a good fit for you.
And I’ll also just say that we’re really focused on the facilitator’s role during the journey, but the facilitator has other roles leading up to that, which is what you’re describing everything from screening and intake to preparation to integration on the back end. And so their role can extend far beyond the actual journey itself. And in my opinion, it should.
But it’s worth just acknowledging that what we’re really focused on today was what happens when you step into that space together for the journey.
Jimmy: Yeah. And even asking them, okay, what’s your philosophy on managing a challenging or overwhelming experience? Do you have a protocol if a medical emergency comes up? Like, what do you do there, all the way to the involvement of your therapist if you wanted in your preparation or integration?
I’ve had many clients where I’m at least working in conjunction with their therapist, and that’s a vital part of the container because a lot of that stuff is out of my scope as well.
And so the best way to really define this, I think, is to acknowledge your own inherent power as a journeyer or your power of choice, your agency, and that you get to be an active part in your own psychedelic experience, not just this observer or this person where all this stuff happens to you, it all happens to you.
And that’s more of a passive approach. So ultimately it’s funny because we talk about the role of a guide or facilitator, but what we’re really talking about is the empowerment of the journey to get the support around them.
So that’s our time for our episode this week, you are welcome to download episodes of The Psychedelic Passage podcast. Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcast, Amazon, on Spotify, IHeartRadio, and anywhere else that you get podcasts. So thank you to all of our listeners. Thank you for your time, and we look forward to tapping in with you next time.
Explore How it Feels to be Connected
If you’ve read up until this point, it’s likely that you’re interested in embarking on your own psychedelic journey. If that’s the case, we encourage you to book a consultation with us to get connected with our pre-vetted network of experienced psychedelic facilitators.
Of course, many questions may still be lingering on your mind about the role of a psychedelic facilitator and the process of a psychedelic experience. If so, we encourage you to check out our resource page for more information on all-things-psychedelic. Until next time, fellow psychonauts!