A “Rough Guide” to Psychedelics: exploring the history, experience, science, safety and business of psychedelics (part 2/5)

Nikhil Shah
5 min readJan 24, 2022
Photo by Edgar Moran on Unsplash

This is Part 2 of a 5 Part “rough guide” to psychedelics. Read this series if you want to deepen your understanding of the subject across a variety of sub-topics.

Part 2 is about The psychedelic experience. For the rest of the series, read Part 1: What are psychedelics and a short history; Part 3: The science of psychedelics; Part 4: Safety in psychedelics; Part 5: The business of psychedelics.

My DMs are open for continued conversations and learning, whether you’re a startup, investor, activist, researcher, healer. I welcome hearing from people who are active in this area. You can find me on my personal website, Twitter, IG, LinkedIn.

PART 2: THE PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE

Credit: Scott Evans (@scottsweb) on Unsplash

I’ll start by stating the obvious. It’s impossible to communicate the experience of psychedelics through words on a screen. Therefore in this piece, I will use some frameworks and concepts to help communicate the breadth (and depth) of what may happen in a psychedelic experience. I found these concepts helpful in understanding and interpreting my experiences — both looking backwards and forwards. I hope you find some value in these too.

Let’s start with a simple framework for the types of experiences (and goals or focus) one can have on psychedelics. I like to map it on a spectrum — from recreational to intentional to medicinal. Some enter from the left (e.g. rave culture). Some from the right (via healers, retreats, and increasingly psychedelic assisted therapists). Both are valid, both are powerful.

In terms of the experience itself, below is my simple framework which can act as both a forward and backward looking tool. A way to think back to experiences we’ve had and what we got out of them, and equally a framework to ponder ahead of an experience to help set intentions for that particular journey.

Examples in the framework above may include:

  • Finding creative inspiration in nature (Creative-Self)
  • Connecting with friends through a deeper appreciation of sounds and sights (Creative-Social)
  • Identifying positive mindset shifts about certain aspects of one’s life, particularly where one previously felt “stuck” (Therapeutic-Self)
  • Inspiring deeper levels of conversation and connection with friends (Therapeutic-Social)

Set & Setting

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

“Set and setting” is a widely understood term in the culture of psychedelics. It is about the importance of mindset (“set”) and environment (“setting”) as an enabler or input for the psychedelic experience. Whilst I believe this concept extends well beyond psychedelics (for example into deep work, meditation, prayer, performance, flow states), it is particularly salient in a psychedelic trip given the neuroplasticity of these experiences. However experienced you are, time invested in this kind of preparation can yield great rewards.

What’s more, this understanding of the importance of set and setting helps to understand the dominant paradigm for how psychedelic therapy is administered. The hint is in the phrase itself — “psychedelic therapy”. A patient undergoing this type of treatment passes through a strict “protocol” which involves talking therapy alongside the psychedelic experience itself. This therapy helps prepare patients to gain the most insight from their trip and to integrate these insights into their lives post-trip.

The Three Bardos

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

On a slightly more esoteric note, in The Psychedelic Experience (1964), authors Leary, Alpert & Metzner describe the 3 stages (Bardos) of a trip, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

First a side note on Timothy Leary. He is a controversial character in the story of psychedelics, cited by some as single-handedly responsible for causing the US government backlash and eventual ban of the substances. He had a stated goal to create a cultural revolution in the 60s by getting as many Americans as possible to trip on LSD. Arguably he was successful and that revolution took place, but unfortunately that revolution was criminalisation. On the flipside, many of the people who participated in the 60s are now in positions of power and able to affect real change when it comes to regulation and investment.

I decided to include Leary and this framework as I personally find it insightful and useful. However I appreciate this language won’t work for everyone. The general idea is that these are the 3 stages we go through on a psychedelic journey. Not too dissimilar to meditation or the buddhist journey towards enlightenment, one could say that the “goal” is to remain in stage 1 for as long as possible.

They say that those who are less experienced will jump to stage 2 more quickly. This may be familiar to some. That feeling of heightened engagement with the physical world: everything looks and sounds magical; we seem more intelligent; deeper levels of insight and creative thinking; increased sensitivity. Equally they say that those who are not ready may jump to stage 3 too quickly, which may result in a struggle to get back to reality. What we may deem as a “bad trip”.

There is an increasing amount of content out there on the psychedelic experience — from Michael Pollan’s wonderful and game changing book “How to Change Your Mind”, to the 2021 BBC documentary “The Psychedelic Drug Trial”. But my advice, if you want to deepen your understanding and appreciation of the psychedelic experience: nothing beats reflection and conversation. Journal about your experiences, spend time on set and setting ahead of your next experience, and put time aside for meaningful conversations with others to share experiences and insights.

Click here for Part 3: The science of psychedelics.

With thanks to Sean McLintock, Tom McDonald, Alastair Moore, Dr Henry Fisher, Sjir Hoeijmakers and Andre Marmot for contributing or reading drafts of these posts.

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Nikhil Shah

Co-founder at Internet radio platform @mixcloud // Co-founder & DJ at record label/clubnight @ManMakeMusic // Dance evangelist @wearedanceclub