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Excerpt: “Challenging Trips and Introduction to the Shadow”

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The following excerpt from the book, Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, by drug policy journalist Michelle Janikian explores the concept of challenging trips, specifically with psilocybin mushrooms, and how to navigate these types of experiences. The chapter is titled “Challenging Trips and Introduction to the Shadow,” and speaks to experiences that can happen to anyone regardless of the substance they take. 

A Challenging Trip

If one chooses to engage with psychedelics, it’s important to remember that the experience is widely subjective. So many things factor into the equation: set and setting, who you are in that moment, the emotional content that you’re working through, and how experienced you are. These are just a few examples out of many that affect the nature of a trip. Dr. Joe Tafur, a respected integrative medicine activist and family physician, even suggests that seeing a heavy movie before an ayahuasca ceremony is inadvisable. The content of that film, since we are projecting our consciousness into another reality, could make its way into your ayahuasca experience. 

This is why at Reality Sandwich, we’re dedicated to educating the public with the most up-to-date information about psychedelics through our substance guides. Safety is paramount; knowledge is power. Furthermore, this is a community effort. We have an entire history of misinformation to clear up. 

The Language We Use to Label our Experiences

A big and somewhat linguistically confusing topic is this notion of a “bad trip.” Janikian seeks to distinguish a challenging trip during which one confronts the “shadow,” the parts of the psyche that are not “in the light,” from a “bad trip” that occurs due to a lack of preparation, proper set and setting, etc.

Having an awareness of the conditions that will allow one to reap the most benefit from their experience regardless of whether it is facile or not is key.

Though we want to move past the “good” and “bad” language that is still being used to label these types of experiences, the questions surrounding a “challenging” trip versus a “bad” one matter to the psychedelic community. Challenging trips can happen. We confront difficult moments in our lives whether or not we take psychedelics. How do we navigate them?

We’re trying to find the language to make sense of something that is, in itself, challenging to find words for.

Knowledge is, again, your best tool. There are ways of preparing oneself for difficult experiences no matter how one chooses to label them. 

In this excerpt from Janikian’s book, which is now available for purchase, we present an edited version of the chapter “Challenging Trips and Introduction to the Shadow,” which introduces challenging trips, confronting the shadow parts of our personality, and some practical suggestions to help navigate these experiences if they occur.

At Reality Sandwich, we’re not telling anyone what to do with their body, nor are we suggesting that anyone engage in illegal activity. However, we initiate conversations around the topics that matter in the psychedelic community in order to encourage our own evolution.

Excerpt: “Challenging Trips and Introduction to the Shadow”

Note: The excerpt has been edited for length and section divisions have been added by Reality Sandwich.

There’s a saying in the psychedelic community that there’s no such thing as a “bad trip,” only challenging experiences. While I would agree to an extent that challenging trips can provide a great deal of healing or teach us the most about ourselves—I still think there’s a distinction between a bad and a challenging trip.

Personal Growth

To me, a bad trip is one that wasn’t prepared and planned for sufficiently, and so the set and setting are all wrong, and the whole experience is overwhelming, chaotic, and unnecessarily stressful. These “bad trip” experiences are common in recreational use, especially in younger and inexperienced folks, and often, not much is learned. On the other hand, a challenging trip is a journey that is well prepared for, but still ends up being difficult emotionally and sometimes physically. However, with the proper navigation skills, integration tools, and, often, the presence of a guide or sitter, challenging trips can be extremely rewarding experiences for personal growth.

From Resistance to Surrender

James W. Jesso, host of the podcast Adventures Through the Mind and author of a few books on psychedelics, including The True Light of Darkness, makes a similar distinction. He defines a bad trip as “becoming overwhelmed by an anxiety resulted from the resistance of an altered state—i.e., wishing we were not high anymore or wishing the experience was different.” Jesso distinguishes this from a “hard trip,” which he writes, “is when we are presented with the darker aspects of the self, the shadow. But instead of resisting the discomfort of that encounter, we embrace it, we surrender to it. It is these trips that hold the most potential for personal growth. And learning how to surrender into the honesty of emotional experience, especially if it is challenging, enables this growth most effectively.”

Letting Go

If you recall in Chapter 9 on navigating the space, we highlighted the fact that “letting go” and “relinquishing your control” to the psychedelic experience is paramount. You may still have a challenging experience, but resistance will only make it worse. On the other hand, acceptance can lead to true insight, and possibly, transcendence or catharsis on the other side. However, letting go will be impossible in a chaotic environment or if you are unprepared emotionally. Because you’ll lack the ability to trust in your surroundings or yourself, you may find that you’re grasping for straws of control, which can lead to more extreme paranoia, confusion, and other unpleasant experiences, such as psychosomatic physical symptoms.

Challenging Trips

Challenging trips can take a lot of different forms, so it’s important to prepare yourself. For instance, your visual experience can get quite dark; instead of things seeming otherworldly in their beauty, they can seem eerie and wrong somehow, which is likely to induce anxiety. In fact, James Giordano reminds me that a common reason people get anxiety during their first few trips is that the tripping sensation contrasts so much with their memory of reality, and that can be frightening. Whether it’s how they experience their own minds, bodies, or physical surroundings, it’s the change that scares people and causes them to resist. He says this is another reason having a guide or sitter could be helpful to psychedelic-naïve folks, to help talk them through disconcerting experiences.

Fear

It’s also possible to relive painful memories, especially traumas. According to Stanislav Grof in his quintessential manual for psychedelic guides, LSD Psychotherapy, some participants can become convinced that they are dying and may even have physical symptoms to accompany this fear such as “seizure-like motor activity, projectile vomiting, profuse sweating, and fast thread-like pulse.” However, he assures guides that these are psychosomatic symptoms, not chemical reactions to the psychedelic, and the “total surrender to it is always followed by feelings of liberation, whereas struggle against it prolongs the suffering.” Grof also points out two other important challenging trip experiences: the fear that the psychedelic experience will never end, and its related horror, that “permanent insanity is imminent.” However, he explains that these are both reactions rooted in the fear of losing control, and at this point you can guess the solution: letting go. […]

The Importance of Having a Guide or Sitter Present

Yet, without a guide or sitter that you trust, letting go to these frightening experiences can be next to impossible, even if you’re in a calm and safe environment. Edward, a 62-year-old man I interviewed for this book (name changed for privacy), told me of a harrowing experience he had taking 3 grams of psilocybin alone at home to deal with an early childhood trauma. […] He realized he couldn’t do this difficult healing work on his own and plans to enlist the help of a professional guide before embarking on his next psilocybin journey.

“Introduction to the Shadow”

Jungian Psychology

According to Grof and many other psychologists, psychedelics can “lower the threshold of your conscious,” allowing more access to unconscious material. In a therapeutic setting, this is ideal, but when doing mushrooms on your own, you could be left to confront your shadow. The shadow is a concept in Jungian psychology that is […] the “sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide.” Although Jung disapproved of psychedelic therapy in the 1950s, psychedelic therapists have adapted many of his ideas to explain the experience, especially its healing properties. For instance, Jungian archetypes can be used to translate the images and visions we see during psychedelic journeys. His concept of the shadow is crucial when trying to understand the underlying benefit of challenging trips.

Ann Shulgin

Ann Shulgin, matriarch of the psychedelic community, therapist, and coauthor of the classic psychedelic books PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and TiHKAL: The Continuation along with her late husband, renowned psychedelic chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, has written and spoken extensively on the topic of the shadow in psychedelic experiences. First of all, she makes it clear that the shadow isn’t inherently bad or evil. Instead, it is what has been repressed since childhood.

“Whatever has been forbidden and treated with contempt by the authority figures surrounding the child. It is those aspects of the person which he has come to think of as unacceptable, awful, terrible, unlovable, and even dangerous,” Shulgin says of the shadow during a speech in 2002.

She explains that the more we repress our shadow qualities, the stronger they’ll become, and we can begin to project these unwanted aspects of ourselves onto others. That’s when our shadow can become destructive, because without realizing it, these projections damage personal and professional relationships.

But that’s where psychedelics come in. Using psychedelics in a therapeutic setting, we can finally confront our shadow and bring it into the light. If done so with the proper support, we can show our shadow compassion—forgiveness even—and it can stop having so much power over us. “What happens… if we manage to bring it up to the light? It transforms; it changes,” says Shulgin. “It’s still there, but no longer as a monster. When you allow yourself to acknowledge, without fear and without hatred… you can allow yourself to have those darker thoughts and feelings, along with the more lovable and admirable ones. You become free.”

Shulgin’s ideas come from Jung’s own theories. He wrote a similar sentiment in Two Essays in Analytical Psychology: “If people can be educated to see the shadow-side of their nature clearly, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustices and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”

Self-Love

[…] The only problem is, having the courage to face your personalized worst fears and release to it—to accept it without anxiety, shame, or resistance—is tough. It’s another instance where having a guide, sitter, or ongoing practice of inner-work skills like meditation can be really beneficial. Like in Edward’s case, sometimes you need that extra support or you can get stuck in the negativity without any transformation.

[…] When I’ve been confronted with some of my shadow qualities while tripping, I’ve been able to recognize them and show them love and forgiveness rather than the embarrassment and self-hatred they cause me—often unknowingly—in everyday life. Although not everyone gets to this self-love place as easily on mushrooms, I have found that it is a common experience when you stop fighting or denying ugly thoughts or negative realizations, and instead, accept them.

Ways to Deal with Challenging Trips

Tripping can get challenging even if you plan the perfect, most tranquil set and setting and are with people you absolutely trust and adore or are doing so with an amazing facilitator. […] If you experience fear or are trying to control the situation too much, your guide should be knowledgeable enough to read your body language, facial expression, or breathing pattern and support you. […]

Remember how the number-one tripping navigation skill was letting go? Well, the main way to deal with a challenging trip is the same: You need to stop fighting and trying to control or end the situation and accept it, even offer it curiosity and compassion. “As with the nocturnal nightmares most of us can recall, when one runs away from psychological conflicts the threatening specter grows bigger and one feels weaker, smaller, and increasingly anxious, often awakening in a cold sweat,” writes Richards in Sacred Knowledge. “When the frightening image is courageously approached and confronted, one grows stronger and insights awaken.”

Again, this confrontation is easier to do with a guide or experienced sitter, but the acceptance and resolution of a challenging trip can be a great source of personal growth.

Suggestions to Alleviate a Challenging Trip

Changing the Scenery

[…] If you’re having a difficult experience, changing the scenery is one of the easiest ways to switch things up and transition from a super-negative headspace. Getting up to sit in another room, or going from inside to outside or vice versa, can do wonders for easing your experience. If you live in a small apartment and this isn’t an option, don’t leave home to try and sort things out. It will likely make you feel more anxious or overwhelmed. Instead, try sitting on a different piece of furniture or lying on the floor instead of the couch.

Switching the Music

Changing the music is another easy thing you can do to lighten the mood when tripping gets tough. Music can have a profound effect on your state of mind while under the influence of psychedelics, and changing it can feel like you’ve entered a totally new space, and hopefully a lighter and more manageable one. […]

Care for Yourself

While you might not get the most healing out of distracting yourself, sometimes doing that deep inner work can be too difficult on your own, and it’s okay to find other ways to cope and relax. Don’t force yourself to go inward and sit with your feelings if you can’t release yourself to them. But if you think you can, try focusing on your breathing to stop fighting the experience and ask yourself or your shadow: Why are you here? What can I learn from you? It’s important to approach your feelings with openness, acceptance, and curiosity rather than embarrassment, shame, or resistance.

Breathe

[…] Speaking of being grounded, many experts recommend taking off your shoes and touching your bare feet to the floor or earth. Plus, don’t forget that breathing through difficult emotions or sensations is one of the most important navigation skills and ways to re-center yourself during a challenging experience!

Ask for Support

If you’re with friends or loved ones while your trip is getting particularly challenging, tell them. You don’t have to go into too much detail or try to figure everything out through talking to them, but a supportive touch like holding hands, or hugging or cuddling if you’re close, can really help.

Challenging Physical Sensations

Sometimes experiences are challenging due to physical sensations, like pain, nausea, or twitches and sudden jerky movements. Again, don’t fight these feelings, just let them play themselves out—without hurting yourself or anyone else—and you’ll likely feel much better afterward. In the case of nausea, throwing up can really help, not just with the nausea but with release in general, so don’t fight it. Instead, try to get yourself to the bathroom and let it come up.

Meditation

For those with a meditation practice, it can really help in these situations as well. Jesso describes how meditating for just 10 to 15 minutes when a psilocybin trip got really difficult helped to re-center him.

“Finding a small corner to sit in, I placed my hands on my heart and began to meditate. This was what I had needed the whole time, an opportunity to just sit and be present with myself. I breathed with intention, bringing forgiveness and compassion on my inhalations, releasing tension and stress in my exhalations. I didn’t avoid my hard feelings anymore, but sat with them while cultivating a sense of worthiness and self-love. It must have been at least 15 minutes before the guys emerged from hunter-gathering our dinner out from the chaos that is an affluent Canadian food supply chain store during rush hour. And by that time, I was feeling much better.”

Whatever it takes to get you grounded, re-centered, and calm is going to be the best way to dig yourself out of a challenging trip.

To purchase Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, visit Ulysses Press, Amazon, or at your local bookstore in the US via Indiebound

About the Author:

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She is particularly interested in the “Psychedelic Renaissance” and the emerging legal cannabis industries in the U.S. and abroad, especially in Latin America. One of her core beliefs is that ending drug prohibition can greatly benefit society. Her work has been featured in Rolling StoneTeen Vogue, and High Times, among others. Originally from NY, she now spends most of the year in Southern Mexico with her pup, Chuy. Her book, Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, is now available.

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