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“ Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible. ” - T. E. Lawrence

Psychedelics: a group retreat - lessons: playlists, nature & integration

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”  Albert Einstein

           “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”  Aldous Huxley

This is the fourth and last post about a recent group retreat I went on with the UK Psychedelic Society Experience Retreats.  The previous three posts are 'Psychedelics: a group retreat - initial thoughts', 'Psychedelics: a group retreat - how did it go?' and 'Psychedelics: a group retreat - lessons: ceremonies, duration & organisation'.  In this post I want to look at the use of playlists, encouraging connection with nature, and ways of supporting integration of what we experience. 

There are lots of pluses of using a music playlist especially during high dose psychedelic trips.  It obviously isn't the only option - see, for example, the addendum further down this earlier post where I discuss experiences walking out into nature, dancing and meditating while tripping.  However, both practically (keeping everyone safe) and to link more directly with most recent research, it makes good sense to use playlists during group psychedelic ceremonies (although using a meditation retreat format is an interesting alternative to consider).  If one is using playlists during a retreat, is it sensible to get everyone to listen to the same list (with all the advantages of this more straightforward approach) or is it worth the potential headache of providing participants with more than one playlist option?  Despite the challenge of catering for differing musical playlists across different group members, I think this is likely to be worth the effort.  Mendel Kaelen & colleagues' qualitative study - 'The hidden therapist: evidence for a central role of music in psychedelic therapy' - highlights that " ... when the music was experienced as dissonant with the unfolding experience, disliked, and rejected (resistance), therapeutic outcomes suffered. In contrast, when the music was in resonance with the patient’s experience, liked, and accepted (openness), therapeutic outcomes were most positive. These music experience variables in this study (resonance, liking, and openness) correlated with each other, suggesting that they represent a single construct within the music experience that is associated with positive therapy outcomes." 

And the authors go on to note "This hypothetical framework holds that an optimal music experience (style liking, music’s resonance, and openness to music) creates an optimal climate for the expression of meaningful therapeutic content, characterised by the sensation of being on a personal journey, with a spontaneous and often intense emergence of personally meaningful imagery, thoughts, and emotionality. This optimal music experience construct may be a critical pre-requisite, and when it is not met adequately, is likely to result in the patient to distance from the music experience (resistance), characterised by feelings of discomfort, and a diminishment of personally meaningful imagery, thoughts, and emotionality (i.e. the absence of the sense of being on a journey). Given the patient’s experience is highly individual and dynamic, this finding suggests that the adaptation of the music during psychedelic therapy sessions may be critical at times, in order to provide adequate therapeutic support conditions, or prevent possible counter-therapeutic experiences ..."  One size definitely doesn't fit all!

It has been suggested that there may be advantages if the participant is unfamiliar with the music being used, so that it's relatively free of personal associations.  I don't think there's any hard evidence for this suggestion, even if it has become a bit of an urban myth.  Since it seems central for better therapeutic outcomes that the participant likes the musical style of the playlist, resonates with & feels open to it, an obvious way forward is to encourage participants to listen to the planned playlist beforehand.  If they feel OK with it, this is fine.  If not, then offering another off-the-shelf option seems sensible.  Three obvious sources are the major psychedelic research centres at John HopkinsImperial College and the Usona Institute.  Their playlists are just a quick internet search away - for example look for 'Psilocybin research John Hopkins' in Apple Music or on Spotifyand also on Spotify searching for 'Psychedelic therapy playlist' brings up three offerings from Imperial College's Mendel Kaelen and also Wavepaths provides a playlist there from Usona as well. 

Especially for more experienced participants, there may well be advantages to constructing one's own playlist.  I've used playlists from John Hopkins, from Imperial and one I put together myself.  I went deepest on the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire using the one I'd designed for myself (which by the way was the one where I was most familiar with the music being used).  I valued having peaceful tracks mostly in the first hour of so of ascent into the trip, and on the descent I've experimented with having some vocal music in the list and some music I enjoy dancing to.  During the high plateau of the trip ... likely to start from 30-90 minutes in and last for roughly 2-4 hours (see this diagram) ... it may be worth selecting from the kind of tracks suggested in Table 2 of Fred Barrett et al's paper 'Qualitative and quantitative features of music reported to support peak mystical experiences during psychedelic therapy sessions.'   I tend to put in some tracks that may be quite emotionally challenging (for example movements from Gorecki's Symphony of sorrowful songs & Coltrane's Love supreme) as well as some that are more serene.

One option on a group retreat is to 'broadcast' a standard playlist through speakers, while encouraging participants (who would prefer to) to bring their own headphones and personal choice of playlist.  If any technical problems emerge with individuals' sound equipment, they can just drop back into listening to the broadcast group playlist.  Of course, it would be sensible if all playlists being used were of about the same length.  On a high-dose trip in the summer, I used headphones that allowed me to increase/decrease volume, stop the music, and jump forward or backwards with the tracks.  This felt helpful, on balance - but when really dissolved on the high plateau of the trip, choice can become an interesting issue and I found myself just going with the flow, rather than being bothered with choices during that phase of the journey.

I would like now to mention briefly the value of encouraging connection with nature & the wider environment both during and also after the retreat.  This sense of increased connection with nature is one of the most commonly described benefits experienced even a year after taking a psychedelic trip.  The 'nature mandalas' we were encouraged to gather treasures for (natural objects we were drawn to, while walking around the house garden & grounds), construct and then bring to the group room altar, were a lovely aspect of our recent retreat.  It was good too to take all who wanted outside for a while after the main ceremony.  I think it would have been even better - especially for longer two-ceremony retreats - if participants had been encouraged to get out for walks more often (and if it had been clarified where there were good routes).  And deepening this link to & care for the wider world in the longer term as well leads us into the last section of this post - how to encourage integration of psychedelic experiences into people's lives after the retreat has ended. 

I would have welcomed more attention being paid to this during the retreat itself.  In the evening after the psychedelic ceremony we were encouraged not to talk about our experiences too much, but to let them settle for a bit.  I would have appreciated being encouraged more to explore doing some writing and possibly some drawing (drawing things could be provided).  


... by linking to the research finding - see 'Psychedelics and connectedness' - that psychedelics can be seen to act by connecting us more fully to self, others and the world.  I would be interested to see how helpful it seemed to be using these ideas more in the orientation & integration phases of the retreat.

Note ... more focus on integration (recordings, 'focusing', dialogue, drawing, gratitude work, intentions, etc) ...


More to follow ...

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