The brains of human beings seem built to process stories better than other forms of input ... - Thomas B Newman, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics
Psychedelics: a group retreat - meeting up, orientation & the ceremony
"Today we can walk around together, talk, eat, and be silent together. Later I believe we'll have the opportunity to act and suffer together. All that is necessary to 'make someone's acquaintance' as they say." Pierre Sogol, professor of mountaineering, speaking in Rene Daumal's book "Mount Analogue".
I recently wrote the post 'Psychedelics: a group retreat - initial thoughts'. So how did this 4-day UK Psychedelic Society retreat go? Well there were 16 participants, 4 facilitators and someone to take charge of the cooking. Our group was named the 'Willow Retreat' and we had been encouraged to introduce ourselves via a group email. Most of us had done this and I'd written "I guess I'm the old hippie on our retreat ... I took my first acid trip 50 years ago listening to the just released 'Live Dead' LP. I shifted then from reading philosophy at university and in the early 70's studied to be a yoga teacher, group facilitator & medical doctor. My primary work for many years now has been as a psychotherapist (alongside helping raise a couple of kids and four grandchildren). The new emerging research on psychedelics has fascinated me and I've revisited the territory personally using psilocybin, as well as dipping my toe into supporting clients who are making this journey themselves. ... I'm very interested in seeing how it is journeying together in a group format ... and I'm looking forward to sharing these extraordinary, potentially life-changing experiences with fellow 'pilgrims'." In addition to the email introductions, we had all been sent a useful 9-page orientation document that helped to set the scene.
And now the retreat was actually starting. I'm writing this description a while later, so some of the sequences I describe may be a bit blurred. We had flown in from a variety of continents & countries to meet in the Amsterdam smartshop Kokopelli's, where we each bought ourselves 44 gm of High Hawaiian psilocybin truffles. We chatted, meeting fellow explorers for the first time. Then we walked to a hired bus for the 90 minute plus drive to where we were to be based at the Atelier Dell'Arte, north & east of Amsterdam. After finding & settling into our rooms, Alex - our lovely cook - served a welcoming meal for us. Then we moved up to the rather beautiful long upper room where most of our meetings would occur and where, the next day, we were due to take the psilocybin. The facilitators had a bit of a challenge on their hands ... to try to get us to bond quickly as a group and to develop a sense of trust & support, all before we were due to take a high-dose psilocybin trip less than a day later. So they had set up a series of dyad and group exercises to help this process. And for me this worked well but group exercises of this kind are something I'm very familiar with. As far as I could see though, this settling-in-orientating-bonding process was working well for other group participants as well. We moved fairly randomly round the room, in sync & out of sync, pausing every so often for a short dyad exercise with whoever we happened to be physically closest to. We used gaze exercises and short sharings on topics like 'One of my major strengths/resources is ... ' and 'A major thing that happened to me was ... '. We all sat in a circle too and there were a couple of go rounds. One was rather fun ... saying our name, a word or phrase sharing how we were feeling, and combining this with some kind of physical gesture/movement. Then everyone else in the circle, echoed our name back to us and also reflected the gesture/movement we'd made. A second go round encouraged us to share fairly briefly our personal hopes for the retreat. And then to bed.
The next morning before breakfast we met as a group with one of the facilitators in the big upper room for half an hour of movement (a shortened Osho kundalini shaking/dancing meditation). Then breakfast and a morning that felt a little disjointed to me. I guess this was partly because all of us were allocated to one of the four facilitators for a 20 minute or so individual check-in (it had been an optional addition to buy ourselves an hour's 1:1 online session with a facilitator before coming on the retreat). Going into the trip itself with a clear intention, fairly calm, and open to surrendering to what emerges seems important. Advice too on managing any more challenging experiences and deciding on what truffle dose to use were all likely to be covered in this 1:1 discussion. It did mean though that we also had an hour or more of waiting while all facilitators were engaged in other 1:1's and I would have appreciated a bit more guidance on how we might best use this time ... maybe again an optional writing/drawing/meditating exercise? My memory of this phase of the group is a little vague, but for me there was a slight waiting room feeling about it. Later there was a rather precious nature mandala exercise, where we were all encouraged to walk around the garden/grounds and bring back treasures (natural objects we were drawn to). We put these on three or four quite large metal serving trays, which later were taken up to the altar area in the centre of the big room we were to use for the trip itself. There was also a good group exercise where we crushed the truffles we would be taking. This was turned into a rather nice ceremony, where the truffles (still in their plastic coverings) were handed out to each of us. We crushed the two packets we were given using the base of a glass or our fingers. We infused them with our good wishes and passed the packets on round the group until eventually all truffles had been crushed down into a peanut butter consistency. And then leading up to the start of the ceremony, we met in a circle outside, singing the Michael Leunig words 'Let it go. Let it out. Let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to travel.' (Here are two rather different versions of the song ... this a faster version of what we sang and here a rather 'smarter' version!). The song became a bit of a theme tune for us over the retreat. And then we each took downies & pillows from our bedrooms across to the main group room. We made 'nests' for ourselves on the couches, which were already positioned against the walls with name labels indicating where we were each to go. It looked a bit like a hospital ward with mattresses on the floor rather than up on bed frames.
And how was the trip itself? This was the heart of why we were all here. We were each given two packs of High Hawaians still enclosed in their plastic wrappings, but already crushed by us earlier into a peanut butter consistency paste. The facilitators came round with scissors to remove an end from each of the packets and with teaspoons we transferred all of one packet and a third of another into a cup (coming to about 30gm of truffles). Because of my previous trips earlier in the year, it was agreed that I would start straight away with two packs - 44gm. A facilitator then came round with hot ginger tea and poured it over the truffles in our mugs. We took our time stirring the crushed truffles into the tea, and over ten minutes or so we gradually sipped the liquid. Once we were finished, our mugs were refilled and again the stirring & sipping. If we wanted to, we could also eat some or all of the remaining truffle paste. We then put on eye masks and lay back on our couches. Meanwhile another of the facilitators was telling a story ... a guided imaging of us as a group walking down to a beach, where there were a cluster of coracles drawn up out of the water. The framework of coracles was traditionally made with willow rods and our group had been named Willow. Apparently the story line of this relaxing guided imagery introduction to the trip can vary ... for example we might all have been encouraged to see ourselves getting into hot air balloons. But today we were asked to see ourselves each taking a coracle, pulling it down to the water, and getting in. My memory is that we were described as paddling & floating out into a lake and then there were a profusion of channels between different islands ... and we split up as we each started out on our personal journeys. This guided introduction apparently took 10 minutes or so ... both encouraging us to relax and occupying the time taken to go round to all 16 of us, cutting the truffle packets open and giving us two lots of ginger/truffle tea.
Some people stayed with their initial 30gm dose as the full amount that they would take for the day's trip. Some of us had the option an hour or so in to drink more ginger tea infused with a further 14-15gm of truffles (the rest of a second pack), so making the total used for the infusions 44gm (or in my case nearly 60gm) of truffles. I had brought a couple of personal questions to this retreat: " ... now I have some recent trip experience, am I more able to navigate while in these deeply altered states of consciousness? I'm thinking especially about depth on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire." And the second of the more personal questions was "how will I cope with the Imperial College playlist being broadcast through loudspeakers to a roomful of fellow trippers?" And both these questions were well answered for me. Even on what was probably very roughly 60mg of psilocybin, I found I could sit cross-legged in a meditation pose for some of the time and then maybe four hours or so in - while coming off the high plateau of the trip - I was able to stand & dance. Meditation as a term rather collapses on high dose psychedelics. There isn't a small ego left, nor a mind in our usual sense of it. But I felt, sitting cross-legged, as if the body was a strong, but ruined castle. It's roofs and turrets had long gone and it was open to all the elements. An empty structure, but still a good physical position for the human body to take up in this swirling, immense opening to the universe. It's interesting to note that I was on about three times the psilocybin dose used in the recent meditation retreat study, where the researchers reported "Compared with placebo, psilocybin enhanced post-intervention mindfulness and produced larger positive changes in psychosocial functioning at a 4-month follow-up, which were corroborated by external ratings, and associated with magnitude of acute self-dissolution experience." And that too was something I was aware of - that I seemed more able to steer & let go into dissolution. I had a physical sense of myself 'swimming through psychedelic frogspawn' - the images/experiences enticing but not where I yearned to be. Intriguingly psychedelic research highlights experiences of ego dissolution during the trip - rather than, for example, extraordinary visual/sensory experiences - as being much more stongly associated with good outcomes at follow-up. And this parallels both yogic & Buddhist warnings that siddhis/powers can easily become distractions on the path to liberation.
For the next post in this sequence, see 'Psychedelics: a group retreat - the ceremony, integration & follow-up'.