As I’ve worked with plant medicine and psychedelic therapy over the years, facilitators have emphasized to me over and over again that what matters most is not the experience itself but how I integrate it—that is, how I apply the lessons from the psychedelic experience to my everyday life. The recommendation usually given to me has been to speak to a mental health professional who specializes in a burgeoning field of therapy called psychedelic integration. But over time, my personal definition of what it means to integrate a psychedelic journey has become much broader than that.
Integration, to me, at different points has looked like writing poetry based on insights I gleaned from the experience, reaching out to specific people who came up for me during the journeys, watching movies that popped into my mind soon after, and buying new clothes to suit the new me that was emerging. And despite the common advice to wait until I’m done integrating one journey before going on to do another one, sometimes it’s been in subsequent ceremonies that I’ve recalled and processed what came up in prior ones.
This made me wonder: What exactly does it mean to integrate a psychedelic journey, and how do you know when you’ve successfully done that?
In its most basic terms, integration is “a process of figuring out what were the messages or lessons or takeaways from the psychedelic experience and figuring out how to apply those to your daily life,” says Juliana Mulligan, ibogaine treatment and integration specialist and Psychedelic Program Coordinator for the Center for Optimal Living. “It’s also about processing all the underlying emotional stuff that gets brought up by the psychedelic experience.” This can include journaling, meditation, breathwork, and talking to a therapist or coach.
Integration can also mean making changes in your life that the medicine is guiding you toward, says Tricia Eastman, who leads psychedelic retreats through her company Psychedelic Journeys. “There are always things that you have to take action on, and the sooner that you start to do the followup related to what came up in your journey, the more that it will stay with you and the longer the experience will keep giving new openings and transformation in your life.”
Part of integration is simply noticing what happens in your own psyche after the trip, since elements of it can continue. For example, if you write down your dreams, you might notice themes from the psychedelic experience continue to come up to be processed, says Eastman.
Since certain effects of psychedelics, like purging, happen at the level of the body, physical practices like getting bodywork or taking salt baths can also help move the process along, she adds.
But integration isn’t limited to the aftermath of a psychedelic experience. Ingmar Gorman, a psychologist specializing in psychedelic integration, considers the preparation for a journey, as well as conversations around whether to engage in a psychedelic experience, part of integration. And for some people who have had difficult trips, integration can mean making meaning of those experiences and regaining a sense of mental wellness and stability.
Dimitri Mugianis, who facilitates iboga retreats through his company Iboga Revolution, runs “psychedelic disintegration” groups to provide an alternative to traditional integration models, which he finds too rigid and confining. “I understand there’s a concept of ‘how can you make this useful in your life?’, but what frightens me is the way it’s often interpreted as a way to make you more productive and adjusted to this really maladjusted, arguably dystopian world,” he says.
“Integration sort of sets the end of the psychedelic experience,” Mugianis explains. “Disintegration is part of a continuation. We want the psychedelic experience to continue and become an ethos and become embedded in your life, as opposed to integrating into something outside yourself.”
Mugianis is concerned that integration is often spoken of as “work” or “homework,” when he hopes psychedelics can dismantle the capitalist ideal of constantly working to achieve one’s goals. “What psychiatry and psychology in the West often wants you to be is a better consumer and a better worker, and so these aren’t what we’re really looking for in a disintegration group,” he says. “We’re looking for what is useful on this plane and what you can disintegrate that is not serving you. We’re seeking to eliminate the walls or barriers that have been imprisoning you. We cannot return people to the baseline of consumerism.”
“What psychiatry and psychology in the West often wants you to be is a better consumer and a better worker,” Mugianis says, but “we’re seeking to eliminate the walls or barriers that have been imprisoning you. We cannot return people to the baseline of consumerism.”
Mulligan agrees that there’s too much emphasis on the work of integrating and not enough on the play and the joy. She recommends that people do something fun and relaxing every week as part of their integration process, as well as something creative.
“Our society is built around being productive and having a good career and making money and doing all these things to check the boxes, and having fun is an afterthought, which has been oppressive for people,” she says. “It’s easy to perpetuate this thing—‘I need to work hard, I need to keep being productive and stay on my new schedule’—but that’s the oppressive system we’re trying to heal from.”
Especially in the days right after a psychedelic journey, Eastman suggests reducing your workload and carving out as much free time as possible just to reflect and do whatever you feel led to do. “The more space you leave, the more you’re going to get out of the experience,” she says.
Another less frequently discussed element of integration is integrating the experience into your larger community. “You can’t just focus on healing and taking care of yourself,” says Mulligan. “It has to be about everybody. It has to be about the collective. So what I encourage people to do is, how can your [own] healing also…help the collective? What efforts can you put out to help everybody else?” A few ways to do this are through volunteer work or offering your professional services on a sliding scale, she says.
Receiving support from a community is just as important as giving back to one. “If you go into a psychedelic experience and have all these major insights and you go back to friends that maybe aren’t also doing healing work, aren’t being self-reflective, it’s going to be really isolating,” says Mulligan. “You need a community that understands you.” One way to meet this need is to join an integration support group, says Eastman. There are several low-cost or free ones that meet online, as well as local ones that can be found on Meetup.
As for the question of when to go on to another psychedelic experience, Mulligan says it’s less about being “done” integrating—an endpoint that’s difficult to define and may not even exist—and more about feeling ready and called to do it. “I leave the time period up to the individual to trust their intuition,” she says. “But I always emphasize to people, stay aware. Do they need new insights and new work, or is it just because things are uncomfortable and they want to fix it? Sometimes, you have to sit in the discomfort and work through it.”
When people move from one psychedelic experience to another without addressing what comes up in their daily lives, this is sometimes known as “spiritual bypassing,” Gorman explains. “The person is continuing to have spiritual life experiences, or pursuing them, but avoiding the wounds or traumas or work that might be important.”
Sometimes, to take stock of someone’s progress in their integration, Gorman has them set goals in the beginning, like breaking certain habits. But often, they have more nebulous aims that are hard to measure, like connecting more deeply to others. “It’s a back and forth feedback process between myself and patients to understand how they are improving,” he says. “I find integration to be successful when that experience is no longer a removed event but part of their lives.”
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Still, there’s not a consensus even among integration therapists as to what integration entails, says Gorman. Since there really is no one-size-fits-all approach, the best thing you can do is find a method and support system that works for you. “A lot of times, people are looking for a really rigid structure that’s like ‘here are the techniques and tools I’m using; it’s based off of this theory,’” says Mulligan. “And it’s not the way people are. Everyone is coming to you with a unique experience.”
Integration is meant to open you (and perhaps those around you) up to new possibilities you couldn’t have previously imagined in your life. So, if your method of choice is one you’ve never heard of before, that means you’re doing it right.