In the past few decades, psychedelics have had a rather grim reputation and usually been swept under the same rug as heroin and cocaine. In recent years, they have been rediscovered by a wider audience, including scientists and psychotherapists, for therapeutic and recreational purposes.
Besides treating serious mental conditions such as depression and addiction, can psychedelics be a tool for intentional personal development in general? FlowSeeker is all about psychedelics for healing and personal development, and this article is meant to be an introduction to that perspective. It will give you an introduction to the potential benefits and uniqueness of psychedelics in this context, and how to approach and integrate their use for intentional self-growth.
What are psychedelics?
Fittingly, the word psychedelic originates in the Greek words psyche (soul, mind) and delein (manifest, reveal). They are substances that induce an altered, heightened state of consciousness with changes in auditory and visual perception and thought. Psychedelics have been shown to work by binding to serotonin receptors in the brain, creating a hyperconnected brain state.
There are natural psychedelics occurring in plants (DMT in psychotria viridis that is part of the ayahuasca brew; mescaline in San Pedro or peyote cacti), toads (5-MEO-DMT) or mushrooms (psilocybin) as well as synthetic psychedelics (LSD, DMT, MDMA). Their effects vary but share similar non-ordinary states of consciousness (note: there will be plenty more about these substances on this site soon).
While most are illegal in most countries, psychedelics such as LSD have been shown to be non-addictive, relatively safe, and non-toxic. Recently MDMA and psilocybin have been researched in clinical studies for their potential therapeutic use for depression, PTSD, and addiction, with very promising results. Some plant-based psychedelics such as San Pedro and ayahuasca have also been used medicinally and traditionally for millennia.
What is personal development?
Personal development could be defined as the life-long process of developing your skills, personality, and psychology. It happens naturally throughout your life, from the moment you are born. Unfortunately, many people stagnate once they’ve reached adulthood and complete formal education. But there is another option: To consciously and intentionally keep growing and evolving yourself.
With personal development you can change who you are and how you show up in the world – and thus substantially improve the quality of your relationships, your happiness and your professional success. All methods for personal development require some kind of investment – of money, time, and/or effort – as well as the willingness to face your shadows. This is true for working with psychedelics, too.
Why psychedelics for personal development?
The world – and work – that psychedelics open up to us can be exhilarating, beautiful, mind-bending, and deeply uncomfortable. On psychedelics we might encounter the darkest parts of ourselves, parts we’ve neglected and avoided, upsetting memories, limiting beliefs. Plant medicines such as Ayahuasca can confront us not only with our own psychological abysses, but also our ancestral or epigenetic trauma. So why bother?
Because all the above are also opportunities to learn about ourselves, resolve pain and trauma, and ultimately grow as a person. Psychedelic states are unique in that they act like a magnifying glass for the mind. As Stanislav Grof put it in his foreword to the MAPS edition of LSD: My Problem Child (October 2005) by Dr. Albert Hofmann:
“In one of my early books I suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy. My later experience with psychedelics only confirmed this initial impression. These substances function as unspecific amplifiers that increase the cathexis (energetic charge) associated with the deep unconscious contents of the psyche and make them available for conscious processing. This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method and tool available in modern mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.”
Preliminary research has shown that psychedelics change the way different parts of our brain communicate with one another – they literally change the way we think. This can give us a new perspective on old problems and help us see solutions we previously couldn’t. Depending on the dosage and substance, we might even be able connect to the spirit world, “God”, or the depths of our subconscious.
Reported benefits of intentionally using psychedelics for personal development include:
- Introspective insights: about yourself, past experiences, your personal relationships, analytical problems, decisions, emotions
- Connection: experience of oneness with everything and everyone, connection to nature, connection to your true self or inner child
- Increased self-awareness
- Improved emotional intelligence and social skills
- Improved productivity and focus
- Overcoming addiction
- Ego dissolution & experience of non-duality
- Resolving pain and trauma
- Relieving mental & physical illness
- Processing ancestral/epigenetic trauma
Psychedelics tend to be very efficient with this kind of work. A weekend spent in ceremony with ayahuasca can be as effective as years of psychotherapy (that’s not just my personal experience – I’ve heard this from several sources, including therapists and shamans). I’ve had my life positively changed and made difficult decisions during singular LSD trips. These altered states tend to help strip away a lot of the distractions and supposedly important preoccupations – and expose what truly matters.
Ready to do the work?
Noticed how I call it “work”? That’s because I truly see psychedelics as a tool to open up my mind and help me work through whatever comes up or my original intention. They are not a magic pill to just swallow and lean back and do nothing (not to be confused with surrendering to the experience, which is crucial). Personal development with or without psychedelics requires consistent, proactive effort and the willingness to face the discomfort, too.
How is it different from recreational use?
Perhaps there is no clear boundary between recreational use of psychedelics and active personal development. I believe it all comes down to the intention – for your next trip specifically as well as your personal journey in the long run. To really leverage psychedelics for personal development, I’d suggest
- A clear intention
- Intentional preparation
- Intentional use of the time during the trip
- Intentional integration
As I said, it’s all about intention, which will be discussed in the following sections. But first, let’s discuss the practicalities.
How to choose psychedelic experiences for personal development
Psychedelics can be experienced in many different ways with varying context, environment and substance. Based on your own experience, your current mental state, location, and your intention, you could choose from:
- Retreats or guided experiences: Dedicate a few days to the experience, usually guided by very experienced professionals (shamans, guides, therapists) in specifically set up retreat centers. The classic example for this are multi-day ayahuasca retreats in Brazil or Peru, where this is legal and part of ancient traditions. Legal and professional experiences are also available in Europe and other places – check out the FlowSeeker retreat directory to find a suitable retreat.
- Working with a guide/trip sitter: You choose the setting and substance of your experience, for instance in your own home, and ask an experienced trip sitter to watch over you during your journey. The sitter will usually stay sober and can help you through difficult moments as well as give you the security that you are taken care of.
- Therapy: Substance-assisted therapy is currently being trialed (e.g. with psilocybin, MDMA) and already legal for some substances and countries such as ketamine therapy in Canada.
- Tripping solo: If you are very experienced and secure, you might consider a solo experience at home or a well-chosen spot in nature.
Apart from the context, each psychedelic substance has its own characteristics and potential. LSD and mushrooms are common choices for tripping alone or with a sitter, whereas ayahuasca and San Pedro are almost exclusively experienced in a ceremonial context (and with good reason).
When it comes to dosage, full “macro” doses provide deeper insight and a particularly altered mind – which can be suitable to work on deep, complex questions and dedicate an entire day or more to the experience. Micro dosing on the other hand allows us to go about our everyday lives with a slightly different perception – which can unlock some powerful long-term benefits.
Before we get into the weeds (okay, horrible pun), please be wary of the contraindications of psychedelic use in general and use with inquisitive intentions in particular.
Although psychedelics have been shown to help alleviate depression and PTSD, particular caution is in order if you or someone in your family suffer from mental illness, are depressed, in deep despair, working through a recent loss or trauma, or anything similarly distressing. Consult with your therapist first before you take psychedelics (there are therapists who know about and accept psychedelics and are happy to talk about them).
Physical contraindications include:
- Taking medication or supplements that might interact with the psychedelic substance. Especially Ayahuasca has a long list of medications that are not safe to combine and need to be paused for multiple weeks before.
- Physical illness or conditions, especially for plant medicines such as ayahuasca or San Pedro or the Bufo Alvarius toad venom – consult your doctor.
Always consult your doctor before taking psychedelics if you have a physical condition or are on medications.
If you feel tired or exhausted, very stressed, or you can’t guarantee to be undisturbed during your experience, it’s also not a good time for psychedelic journeying. Your stress and exhaustion will be amplified under the influence and it will likely be very uncomfortable and distressing. So better save it for another time. There are plenty of other practices such as meditation, journaling or artistic expression to help you through difficult times.
As with all psychedelics experiences, preparation is key.
- Setting an intention
- Choose a setting: Carefully choose a suitable environment/location, day, time of day. Outside of retreat or therapeutic contexts, your home or safe, well-known places in nature are good choices. If you choose a spot in nature, make sure it is safe, secluded, and that you know it well enough. Also give yourself easy access to a private indoors environment, should you change your mind during the experience. Choose a day where you can log out of regular life and nobody will disturb you.
- Carefully make the decision of whether to trip alone or not. If you don’t feel safe or experienced enough to do it alone, find a tripsitter to watch over you during your experience. Talk to them beforehand about your intentions, boundaries and some ground rules.
- Set yourself up for a day free from external influence and distraction. Put your phone in flight mode and block social media on your computer. Make sure you will not be disturbed during your journey and no one expects anything from you. If it makes you feel safe and you don’t have a tripsitter, ask a trusted friend to be available to call in case you’re having a hard time.
Setting an intention
There are generally two types of intentions that can be helpful for a conscious psychedelic journey. The first is an intention for how to approach the experience itself. This could include surrendering, breathing into the discomfort or fear, or specific activities you’d like to do during the trip. The second kind of intention is about what you would like to work on in terms of your healing or self-growth. This could include open or specific questions or statements around
- Analytical problems
- Difficult decisions
- Past trauma
- Strong emotions such as anger and sadness
- Reconnecting with your true self or inner child (desires, character etc.)
What to do during the experience
Do whatever feels good. Don’t pressure yourself into working on your intention – maybe your mind needs to explore something else first. Be kind to yourself and be patient. Especially the start of a psychedelic experience, just after coming up, can be uncomfortable and frightening – so give yourself a moment to arrive – breathe, lean back. And observe what comes up in your mind.
As soon as you feel comfortable to do so, try out these activities (keep this or your own personal list close by during your trip for inspiration):
- Listen to music
- Play music
- Walk, yoga, exercise, swim – but don’t overestimate your abilities
- Meditate (bonus: use an eye mask and music for an extra deep state)
- Let the mind wander, ponder
- Review your questions/intention
As with any psychedelic experience, no matter with what motivation, avoid:
- Dealing with potentially difficult situations such as walking the streets, replying to messages, talking to people (other than your companion/tripsitter)
- Consuming news, social media or any other kind of content you don’t know and can’t control
- Drinking alcohol
- Dangerous or unknown places such as cliffs, woods, ocean
- Doing potentially dangerous things such as difficult exercise, driving, handling weapons or other dangerous objects
To get the most out of your experience, especially with the intention of personal development, acknowledge that integration is the most important aspect of intentionally using psychedelics. For more details, check out this article.
Ideally clear out your schedule for the rest of the day and the day after and allow yourself some time off work, social media, and other social commitments. Take the space for yourself. Arrange all of this before your trip, even if you think it won’t be necessary – you will be very grateful to yourself for doing this.
Psychedelic integration is an ongoing process, and it’s unique to every person and every individual experience. Generally, there are a few practices and techniques that can really aid it however:
- Spending time in nature
- Musical or artistic expression
- Movement, e.g. yoga
A strong daily practice such as a morning and evening routine can be a powerful foundation not just for your integration, but also a fulfilled and successful life in general.
If you’ve had a particularly intense or difficult journey, consider talking to an integration coach or therapist to help you interpret and process your experience.
Psychedelics are a powerful tool for enhancing one’s personal development journey. But it cannot start or end there – personal development is a holistic process that requires not only a long-term commitment to growth, but also consistent practice. Working with psychedelics isn’t always easy or comfortable, and most of the work happens after the experience during integration. Above all, psychedelic experiences need to be properly prepared, safe for our individual circumstances, and approached and integrated with intention. Only then they are an invaluable opportunity to open our mind to a unique level of understanding and connection that can help develop ourselves faster and more deeply.