Ecotherapy and psychedelic experience

Many indigenous peoples have an ancient tradition of healing with psychedelics. Best known perhaps are the Mazatec, who conduct ceremonies with psilocybin mushrooms, and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, who draw on the healing power of ayahuasca.

In every case, these healers hold the psychedelic experience within two containers or baskets. Ritual is fundamental and forms the inner basket. The healing ritual is itself held within a broader basket of a culture and community that’s seamlessly integrated into the natural world. In the West, we tend to overemphasise the psychoactive substance itself, but these two holding baskets cannot be separated from the healing power of indigenous psychedelic journeys.

The importance of set and setting is fairly familiar in the West: Your state of mind (mindset) and the location you’re in have a huge impact on any psychedelic experience. In most cases, less attention is paid to preparing for and integrating the psychedelic journey. Because indigenous psychedelic work is held within the two baskets, preparation, set, setting and integration are seamless aspects of the whole process.

It’s sadly no surprise that the Western pattern of using psychedelics is usually fractured and piecemeal. We’ve applied our usual pattern of taking those aspects we find most exciting and ignoring the deeper context. I suspect that was part of the reason why the ‘60’s psychedelic revolution went wrong: Leary’s injunction to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ lacked a strong holding container.

We may be at the start of a psychedelic renaissance, and it’s vital that we learn from past mistakes and the wisdom of indigenous healers. In the West, we’re pretty good at ritual, and a decent psychedelic guide will provide a simple ceremony to support a journey. But our connection with nature is often neglected. Kile Ortigo’s recent book on psychedelic integration (2021) barely mentions nature. However, a paper on the same subject by Sam Gandy and colleagues (2020) notes that “Spending time in nature may be one of the most effective practices for maintaining the benefits of psychedelic sessions”.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for our dysfunctional but dominant culture to try to copy – which is nice way to say ‘appropriate’ – indigenous practices. We need to find our own way, and ecotherapy provides an ideal framework to rediscover nature connection. Ecotherapy can play a crucial role in how we manage the power of psychedelic experiences and I’m exploring ways in which it can serve as part of the holding basket for psychedelic healing. This isn’t straightforward, as psychedelics are illegal almost everywhere. But it is vital if the much-hyped ‘psychedelic renaissance is going to be more than another failed experiment.

This post draws on my research for the Synthesis Institute, notably their pioneering Psychedelic Practitioner Training.