So, you’ve decided you want to take a guided psychedelic journey and you’ve saved up the money to do so—now what? The truth is, it’s difficult to know if a stranger is the right facilitator for you, and if you’re looking for someone in a region where psychedelic medicine work is still illegal, it can be an awkward and challenging space to navigate. Even still, don’t throw yourself into the first opportunity you find. Instead, do your homework, listen to your gut, and take the following advice into consideration.
Ask Them as Many Freakin’ Questions as You Need to in Order to Feel Comfortable
If they seemed turned off by your long list of questions, that’s your first red flag. In fact, a guide who I spoke to for this story told me they worry if potential clients don’t ask a ton of questions. Essentially, even if it’s awkward, you need to ask your guide what makes them qualified to serve this medicine and hold space for you. Remember, you are going into a deep and vulnerable situation with this stranger, and so in order to know you’re safe—physically and psychologically—ask whatever you feel you need to. Not sure what that is yet? Keep reading.
Are They Doing Their Own Inner Journey Work?
If not, it’s another red flag. Unless this is an FDA-approved clinical trial, if your potential facilitator won’t talk to you about their own personal psychedelic work, or has never had an experience of their own, they are not qualified to hold space for yours. The Ancestor Project, a Black-led psychedelic integration and education community, and the Psychedelic Equity Project, a BIPOC-centered community healing center, both recommend also asking how long they’ve been working with psychedelics personally, as well as how long they’ve been doing this work professionally. If they started working with and giving psychedelics around the same time, it’s yet again a red flag. If someone thought they were ready to guide others through psychedelic journeys after just a few of their own, they’re likely an opportunist or have a big ego, so best to find someone who is more humble and experienced.
The Type of Medicine Matters
There are many different types of psychedelic experiences, and some folks prefer to have a guide with them on every journey they take. That said, some medicines require less guidance than others: For example, not everyone needs a guide for MDMA, LSD, or psilocybin mushrooms. But for medicines like ibogaine, ayahuasca, and 5-Me-DMT, it’s not advised to use these substances by yourself. And so, part of your journey will also have to be deciding what substance is best for you, and if you really need a facilitator for the type of work you want to do.
Beware of Gurus & Promises of Miracles
When I put out a call on social media asking how others vet their guides, this was the number one thing to come up: If your potential guide fashions themselves as the answer, or as a guru or shaman, it’s not a good sign. Instead, they should meet you halfway as an equal and as a compassionate, grounded human being who can support you through your journey. The reality is you have to keep working hard on yourself outside the medicine session to see any change in your life from a psychedelic experience. The substance can help show you the way, and a facilitator can help you feel safe and supported through the journey, but in the end, they’re not the ones doing the healing. You are. What’s more, if they insist on “translating” or “interpreting” your experience for you—rather than helping you find your own meaning—that’s also a sign that their ego is too inflated and they are not cut out for this work.
Lastly, if this is a retreat or an individual guide with a website or Instagram, beware of language promising miracles, cure-alls, and silver bullets. If their webpage is full of phrases like “Cure depression, addiction, PTSD, leave our facility a happy fulfilled person,” it’s more about taking your money than it is about being honest about this work. Chances are you will not be totally cured from your problems after one (or 100) session(s). You can develop the skills, self-awareness, and strength to overcome issues—but it’s an ongoing process that requires a lifetime of work.
Get References & Meet In Person
This can be a tricky one and may not be totally necessary for everyone, but for me personally, if a facilitator cannot provide references of past clients or can’t spare the time to meet me in person first for a coffee or a 30-minute walk, then I wouldn’t trust them with my physical and mental wellbeing in such a vulnerable state. Note: Because of past client privacy and the legal grey area of this work, references can be difficult. What I will say, though, is if a facilitator is unwilling to connect you with any past clients, that seems sketchy. And if they can’t meet you in person first, I’d want at least a solid video chat or two for intake, and to make sure I really feel safe and comfortable enough with this person before moving forward. If the vibe is off when you’re sober, that’s only going to be amplified when you’re on the journey.
The psychedelic experience can be a catalyst for change and healing, but how much you reap from it is really about how you integrate the lessons from the journey into your everyday life. That’s what makes the changes and healing last. So if your potential guide doesn’t even mention integration, that’s cause for concern. If they do bring up integration, great, but next up is to listen to what exactly they are saying. Do they just mention it and summarize a bunch of stuff they read online, or do they help you formulate a plan? Part of the value in seeking out a facilitator is finding someone to not only hold your hand through the drug experience, but to also help you through the unpacking afterwards. So ask them how they plan to support your post-experience integration work. Many facilitators will offer at least one hour-long integration phone call included in their package.
Be sure to ask them their rate for continued integration support. If they don’t offer it, that could possibly be another red flag. And remember, integration doesn’t have to look like talk therapy for everyone (it can be a whole array of activities like journaling and spending more time in nature, there’s a whole chapter of recs in my book, Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion), but knowing your guide will be there to support you through both the medicine session and all the weird mixed-up feelings that can follow is crucial.
If You Have Trauma or Other Mental Health Conditions, Look for Someone with Training
Is your guide trauma-informed? Do they have training in spiritual emergence(y)? Ask them. If they don’t know what you’re talking about or try to change the subject, that’s a red flag. Training and a graduate degree in counseling aren’t always necessary, and often folks with no formal degree can be great compassionate guides. At the same time, sometimes those with many letters behind their name and all the expensive training certificates are not ethical and trustworthy people. But if you’re looking to face and deal with past trauma (or at least you think it could come up), you might want to work with a more experienced and trained guide than the average tripsitter. That’s because psychedelics can open a Pandora’s box of repressed emotions and memories. If your guide is willing to break you apart but they’re not willing to also help you put yourself back together, they’re not worth your time and
It’s also important to note that often people go into psychedelic experiences for an array of reasons that don’t include trauma (or they don’t even identify as being traumatized) and yet this stuff still comes up. So being really clear with yourself about your intentions for this experience can help you pick the right type of guide with the right amount of training.
Ask About Their Modality & Check If You’re Actually Comfortable with It
Does this guide honor ceremony, work in a psycho-therapeutic modality, or mix elements of both? There’s no right or wrong way to hold space for this kind of work, but the main thing is that you’re comfortable. If your potential guide starts talking about the four directions and their Indigenous “teachers,” but doesn’t mention any kind of sacred reciprocity (aka how they’re giving back to the communities that shared their knowledge), then they may just be appropriating someone else’s culture and benefiting from it without giving back.
What’s more, if they work in a highly ceremonial manner and that feels alienating and weird to you, that’s okay. Listen to your gut. Ceremony can be a beautiful thing, but it’s not the only way to achieve a mystical or spiritual connection to this work, especially if it makes you uncomfortable. At the same time, not everyone wants to do this in a sterile office with eye shades and headphones (the current psycho-therapeutic model). So talk to your potential facilitator about what the set and setting will be like, what will go down on trip day, what they view their role as, and who they were trained by (especially if it’s ceremonial, ask what community they learned from). Some facilitators will be flexible and meet you halfway, others will take their religion and ceremonial container very seriously—either approach is fine, you just have to make sure you choose the right situation for you.
Does your potential guide clearly layout boundaries? The first step in securing safe boundaries will likely be sending you an intake form and having you sign a contract, which will lay out all the rules and expectations of your psychedelic journey and professional relationship. This may seem weird, but it’s actually a really good thing (so make sure you’re completely honest about your intentions and history). Keeping your relationship with this person in the professional realm is the best way to ensure clear-cut and safe boundaries for both of you. This can get fuzzy and difficult to navigate after a powerful psychedelic session when it may feel like your facilitator is the first person to ever see or get you. But even if that’s the case, the truth is, you’re not friends. Nor are you lovers. And if your guide is trying to be your friend or more, it’s a red flag. It can seem like a good idea to become friends with or become romantically involved with your guide at first, but the truth is this almost always gets messy and can be (re)traumatizing or destabilizing.
Other boundaries should also be discussed, like the level of touch you are comfortable with during the psychedelic session. If they don’t bring it up, you absolutely should, especially if touch makes you uncomfortable. But even if it doesn’t (and know that a hug or holding hands can be a welcome and grounding part of this work when psychedelics get challenging), I still recommend you broach the topic before you’re on the medicine. The main thing is you want all of this stuff to be out in the open before you take any psychedelics to avoid it getting uncomfortable, or before anyone crosses boundaries they didn’t know the other had.
Trust Your Gut
The most important thing throughout this process is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right or safe, listen. I know it can be hard to turn potential guides down when you’re desperate to do psychedelic medicine work, but it’s essential to wait for the facilitator who makes you feel seen, heard, safe, and comfortable. Otherwise, this experience could end up doing you more harm than good. When I spoke with the Psychedelic Equity Project about this topic, they also brought up the fact that many with trauma struggle with discernment and could jump into situations that aren’t safe. So if you think that’s a tendency of yours, get a trusted friend or loved one’s opinion and definitely try to get references. Some guides will also have reviews online on sites like Retreat. Guru or PsychedelicExperience.net, so be sure to do your homework thoroughly.
All in all, if you take the time to carefully vet your potential guide, you could end up finding a kind and compassionate soul who can be your rock through a powerful psychedelic experience, helping you feel safe to go deep and learn more about yourself. That’s the ultimate goal.
This article was originally published in Issue 5 of DoubleBlind Magazine. Learn more about how to trip safely in Michelle Janikian’s book Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion (Ulysses Press, Nov. 2019)