The dogs howl, but the moon still keeps on shining. - German Proverb
Psychedelics: a group retreat - initial thoughts
This series of blog posts on psychedelic group retreats was written back in 2019. Much has happened since then ... in research terms, in links with colleagues, and in the development of the Psychedelic Health Professionals Network. The Network has an educational charity framework and provides multiple learning opportunities (free weekly research newsletter, orientation/integration groups, journal clubs, peer supervision, podcasts, lectures and more). One major experiential resource it offers are legal, six-day, two-ceremony psychedelic retreats in the Netherlands. To find out more about these retreats please visit the Psychedelic Health Professionals retreats page.
"There isn't any formula or method. You learn to love by loving - by paying attention and doing what one thereby discovers has to be done." Aldous Huxley
"A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein
In a few days time, I'm due to travel to a group retreat run by the UK Psychedelic Society in the Netherlands. Over the last ten months I've read most of the emerging research on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, been to the main UK academic conference, and initiated a small Scottish health professionals' psychedelic special interest group. I've also written quite extensively about psychedelics - on this website, in an article for the main Scottish counselling journal, in a short book section on end of life distress & in a forthcoming chapter on psychedelics & compassion. There has been a 50 year gap since I explored LSD as a philosophy student & then when studying medicine. I've now taken seven psilocybin trips this year (3 high, 3 moderate & 1 low dose). All have been in an individual format, where I've been the only one taking the psychedelic - and with the high dose trips I've had a trip sitter, while with the moderate & low doses I've taken them on my own.
The major reason for all this exploration is to be more useful for others who want to take this journey. Personal curiosity also contributes to this interest. There is increasing evidence that psychedelics can be helpful both for a whole series of difficult-to-treat disorders and also for 'normal' populations as well. In order to make these approaches more widely available, it seems very likely that there will be considerable reliance on group as well as individual formats. I want to have both individual experienced trip-sitter who I know & can vouch for in the Netherlands (where taking psilocybin truffles is legal) and also a group retreat that I know & can vouch for ... hence the journey to the Netherlands next week for a high-dose trip taken with 15 other participants & 4 facilitators (and pretty soon our Scottish group are likely to be running Netherlands retreats as well).
Sitting here this morning writing this, half a dozen questions go through my mind. A couple are more personal, a couple are about the group, and a couple more about follow-up. The first personal one is ... 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. At the last high-dose trip I took back in July, I went even deeper than I did at the two high-dose explorations in March. How much was this due to variation in the strength of the truffles and how much due to being a little more familiar with navigating these huge internal ocean currents. I feel it's something about surrendering, about letting go more & more & more deeply until there's nothing further to let go of ... just the immense, totally full emptiness. Everything & nothing. And with these great ocean currents there can be so much fear, tightening, resistance ... and the question is have I got a little more experienced at floating, at stepping in & opening out, at trusting the ocean? And the second more personal question is how will I cope with the Imperial College playlist being broadcast through loudspeakers to a roomful of fellow trippers? Currently it's my least favourite of the three playlists I've used, and there's presumably no way I can skip a track or turn the music off if it's on public broadcast. I guess it could get fairly noisy at times too with a bunch of fellow travellers going through their varied gigantic journeys. Maybe there's more practice at letting go & letting be here!
And a couple of the questions are a bit more about the group format. A central one is to learn ... how do these experienced facilitators run the group? What seems to work ... and what, for me, doesn't work so well? I have been involved in hundreds of psychotherapy groups over the last 45 plus years ... some as participant and a good few as facilitator. I even teach group facilitation. Many posts on this website discussing this area can be found under the Group Work tag. The interesting presentations on group ceremonies at this year's Breaking Convention conference also highlight a series of issues about this territory. How well the group works can make a big difference to how much benefit group members experience from this retreat. Having supportive group participants contributes a good deal. And here's the second question I have in this area ... how can I be deeply supportive next week for all of us working together in this group. We really are fellow travellers on what can be a huge journey. I am very moved by the Aldous Huxley quote at the top of this post ... "There isn't any formula or method. You learn to love by loving - by paying attention and doing what one thereby discovers has to be done." So the question here is around my paying attention and serving/responding to what is emerging.
And the final pair of questions are more about integration and follow-up. How do these facilitators, from probably one of the best-run group retreat in Europe, encourage us to integrate what we've experienced? What can I learn from how they do this ... for myself, for clients I work with, and for groups I might be involved with myself? And the second question here is 'Will some of us from this retreat want to go on supporting each other online after the retreat?'. I would be interested in being involved in something like this. I think it could again be helpful personally, for individual work, and for possible future group integration circles. Riches ... so many potentially good things to experience & explore.
Actually, on reflection, I have one further (seventh!) question bubbling up. The research group at John Hopkins leads the world with their studies on psychedelics. They have highlighted the importance of higher scores on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire for optimising long-term outcomes. The research group at Imperial College are the primary players here in the UK. They have developed the Emotional Breakthrough Inventory to highlight possible further outcome gains achievable through psychedelic-assisted trauma processing. Recent work however has shown the potential value of boosting the Reward/Approach behavioural system - see 'Accentuate the positive: an exciting new psychotherapy development'. So the final question I have is about the relevance this positive focus might have for further improving outcomes of psychedelic experience.
The next post in this sequence is 'Psychedelics: a group retreat - meeting up, orientation & the ceremony'