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Psychedelics Talk Set and Setting: The Keys to Curating A Psychedelic Journey

- By Alana Rabby Dowling, MSW

Set and Setting are two terms that are commonly used in psychedelic circles, research, and therapies. This is because these two words describe factors that are significant in shaping and informing what your journey into non-ordinary states of consciousness will look and feel like. Many people believe the key is in the type of substance and the dose, and these are important, but their role is in opening the door in our minds so we can step into another state of consciousness and understanding. In fact, psychologist and advocate of psychedelics Timothy Leary (in the co-authored book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead along with Ralph Metzner and Ram Dass ) explored the role of Set and Setting in psychedelics and considered these to be “two of the most critical determining variables of outcomes in a psychedelic experience” and once you understand what Set and Setting actually means, it is easy to see why.

So, let’s start with an exploration of definitions.

What is “Set”?

Set refers to your mindset, or inner climate. It includes your mood, personality, beliefs, expectations, perception, and preparations. This is all about your internal self before the psychedelic experience, during, and after.

What is “Setting”?

Setting refers to the physical environment outside of and around you. Setting is the actual setting where the psychedelic journey occurs- a party, your home, a therapeutic treatment room, etc. It also encompasses the people you have around you, the cultural forces surrounding you, the scents, visuals, and sounds in the environment, and even the weather.

How do Set and Setting impact a Psychedelic Journey?

Michael Pollen, author, journalist, and activist, explains in his book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence that “Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever’s already going on both inside and outside one’s head.” Set and setting are reflected in the psychedelic experience, so they both have a profound ability to guide the journey.

In terms of set, if you are anxious and worried you will have a very different journey than if you are feeling calm and laid-back. If you go into the experience with very rigid expectations, you may feel disappointed with the experience and be less able to explore what comes than had you been open and curious.

The same goes for setting. If you prefer a fun, uplifting, high-energy experience, you might consider a music festival the ideal environment to be in. Being in your own home, surrounded by your comforts and a close and trusted friend generally creates calm, relaxing and therapeutic energy, resulting in a calmer, more relaxed and therapeutic journey. Having individuals that you don’t know or trust, or those who you fear will judge you for thoughts, feelings, or ideas that might come up during the experience will make it harder to be open and settle into the journey, and your experience will reflect the closed-off and self-preserving part of you that is uncomfortable. Hunger, distracting or annoying noises, off-putting smells can draw your attention and pull you out of the experience, or create unpleasant feelings and sensations.

It would be impossible to cover every possible variable of set and setting in one blog, so instead, let’s explore how you can curate your journey using set and setting.

At the top of our list of recommendations is meeting with a Psychotherapist or Practitioner trained in Psychedelics/ Non-ordinary stated of consciousness. At New Earth Therapy, we have psychotherapists who are trained in and passionate about this! Our team includes professionals who can not only offer post-psychedelic integration but can work with you on understanding and preparing set and setting. When preparing, it is important to explore your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and expectations, and it can be helpful to set an intention for your journey. There are also factors to consider with setting, including safety, and comfort, that our psychotherapists can provide information or suggestions about.

If professional therapy isn’t your thing, or if you aren’t in the area, there are some questions and considerations you can use on your own to check, understand, and shift your set:

  • What are your preconceptions about psychedelic experiences? Consider how these preconceptions make you feel and where they come from.

  • What are your expectations? Are you going into this expecting lots of visuals and imagery, or are you thinking you will feel nothing at all? Try to be open to what might come, without having concrete expectations, as often the experience is fairly different than what we envision.

  • What are your goals? Why are you embarking on this journey? Do you want a fun, light experience? Maybe you want to explore your inner self or take a step outside of yourself and gain a perspective shift. Find your why, and know that it doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering reason, but grounding yourself in your why helps shape the experience.

  • What do you hope to learn? Experience? Understand? Resolve? This is a great time to set your intention. Intentions are different than expectations, because an intention is a general direction, not a set in stone plan. Intentions invite experiences, and can help guide you through the journey, and anchor you to your why.

Helpful considerations for setting can include:

  • Environment: Where will you be? Do you enjoy or feel safe if that location/scenario? Do you want somewhere wide and open or small and cozy? Access to nature? Intimate and private or a public space? Do you feel anxious in unfamiliar settings, or are you okay in new places?

  • Support: Will you have someone with you during the experience? Who will it be? How well do they know you/ you know them? Are there any concerns about judgement or criticism? Do you feel at ease with them and do you trust them to hold space for your journey? Does their energy jive with yours? Do they have any experience with psychedelics?

  • Safety: Can you easily access medical or emotional support if needed? If you need support, are you comfortable with physical touch? Are there known triggers (noises, songs, smells) that create distress for you that can be avoided or planned for?

  • Comfort: Are there items you need to bring with you to feel relaxed? What specific foods before, during, and after help you feel calm and aren’t upsetting to your body? What clothing will be comfortable during the experience? Is there music that resonates with you and feels comforting? Do you need water with you?

Ultimately, taking some time to check in with yourself and understanding the factors both within and outside of you that could cause positive or negative sensations and feelings is helpful when preparing for a psychedelic journey. The ways we prepare, and the settings we find supportive, and comforting vary widely, and are as unique as the individuals involved in the experience. Are there ways you prepare your set and setting that have been helpful? We always love to hear more about your experiences!