Psychedelic Explorers Guide: The 6 Keys to Safely Tripping on Psychedelics for Deep Insight and Expansion of Consciousness
BY DR. RICHARD LOUIS MILLER, M.A., Ph.D.
photo: sarah diniz outeiro
Editor’s Note: The following is an interview conducted by Richard Louis Miller with James Fadiman, who is widely acknowledged for his extensive work in the field of psychedelic drug research, including a major contribution with his most recent book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.
Putting Dangers in Perspective
RLM: LSD. How dangerous is it? If you look at the sun while you’re on LSD do you go blind? Does hair grow on the palm of your hands? Do you end up in the emergency room? We have now had forty to fifty years of people using it on their own, illegally.You’re citing figures going into the tens of millions—you know how many people are being admitted to the emergency rooms each year around the country. You know how many people have died, so please share that information with us.
JF: I say to people that psychedelic drugs are very powerful substances, and used incorrectly you can get in trouble. Used correctly, the chances of anything going wrong are extraordinarily low. One of the reasons I like LSD is that you use literally a hundred millionths of a gram—there are almost no physiological changes.
Things go wrong if you take it in the wrong setting, with the wrong friends, at the wrong time, with the wrong other substances. Or if you take too much—which is true of most other substances.
Tobacco causes approximately 400,000 deaths a year. Alcohol causes approximately 125,000 deaths per year. Peanuts cause about 100 deaths. Psychedelic drugs aren’t even on the list. Although I am beginning to worry about peanuts. Have people gotten into serious trouble? Have some been hospitalized for years after taking psychedelics? The answer is yes, but probably as much from the bad situation and from the kind of well-meaning but ignorant health care they received immediately afterward.
Forbidden Fruit and the Folly of Prohibition
JF: If you go to Burning Man, where there’s a huge amount of drug use, they have a medical tent, and what they call Sanctuary, which is there to help people who are frightened, upset, and paranoid (also dehydrated), usually to simply recover without interrupting the flow, so the experience can complete itself. There are even ways to work with very difficult situations, which are especially common at major concerts or festivals, where people have not had the chance to get decent information for the last forty years. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to put out the basic safety information, to ensure that if people are going to use something illegally that they have the best information available—to get the safest and most beneficial psychedelic trip experience possible. We must not forget that the reason people want to use these substances is because they feel there’s some benefit.RLM: Yes, so here we have a legal book about how to use an illegal substance, which is so attractive to people that they’re using it by the tens of millions—right in the face of government and media focus that says: “This is so dangerous that we’re making it illegal.”
JF: The last time the government tried to prevent people from doing what they wanted was called Prohibition. Before Prohibition, there were eight hundred drinking establishments around Times Square. During Prohibition there were twenty-five hundred drinking establishments in that same area. We should have learned that prohibition is not the best way to prevent people from using whatever it is that the government doesn’t like.
RLM: In fact, if anything, it makes it more interesting. It’s like when we were told as children that we should keep away from a certain thing the adults might be using, and we were thinking, “Gee, if that’s the thing to keep away from, I want to find out what it is.”
JF: We must never give a bean to a small child and say, “Don’t put it up your nose.”
Six Variables for a Safe and Beneficial Psychedelic Session
RLM: I’m asking you a question I shouldn’t ask, but I’m asking anyway—if you’re allowed to do this, tell us, what is the proper way to take LSD?
JF: There are six major variables that make a successful psychedelic trip and session. Successful means healthy, safe, and meaningful.
1. First, the mental set.
2. Second, the physical setting, which should be safe and comfortable.
3. Third, the sitter—I recommend, recommend, recommend a guide who can assist you if you get into places that are frightening or difficult.
4. Fourth, the substance—there are many kinds of psychedelic drugs and how much you take matters.
5. Fifth, the session itself—how the six to twelve hours run, what you do during that time.
6. Sixth, what kind of a life group you come back into—to people who support this kind of expanded awareness? Or to people who feel that you have just done something either evil or dangerous?
I want those basics available out there as widely as possible, because I’m a safety nut, and I’m also a guide nut. You don’t learn to drive by throwing someone the car keys and saying, “Good luck!”
1. Set: Mental Attitude and Intention
RLM: What is set?
JF: Set is mental attitude or intention. Are you taking this psychedelic drug because you would like to become closer to divinity, however you understand that? Or are you taking it because you are interested in working on your own personal issues? Or are you taking it just for self-discovery?
Are you taking it just for recreation? Someone in New York recently asked me at a conference, “Is there anything wrong with using things just to have fun?” I had to admit there is a good argument for that.
Other ways of using it are for scientific problem solving—for very hard-nosed, rational problems—and just for discovering what happens inside your own mind when you give it a nudge in a different direction.
RLM: What is an example of using LSD for problem solving?
JF: We did some research just as the government was shutting us down, and we’d had senior scientists taking what we call low doses of LSD. That would be 100 micrograms, a hundred millionth of a gram, and we basically gave them a safe, supportive setting. We gave them a couple of hours of free ranging inside their mind, and we then asked them at the peak of the experience to work on their own chosen problem—an important technical problem—and I mean very technical: theory of the photon, chip design, engineering problems, architecture problems, and so forth. Things that they had hitherto worked on and not been successful. That was our criteria during the psychedelic trip, because we wanted them to care a lot about problem solving.
There’s been a lot of stuff on every level about Steve Jobs, and my favorite headline is “Steve Jobs Had LSD. We Have the iPhone.”* From what he reported, it was one of the most important experiences of his life. And to me that meant that he did it well—did it carefully. He was looking at the material world as well as his inner world.
RLM: We don’t know whether he continued to use it, we just know that he did use it early on. There are so many people—as you well know, Jim, myself included at various times in my career—who were willing to talk about using it many years ago. If there are those who would prosecute me I would say, “That was thirty years ago.”
JF: But I think we can say with Steve Jobs that we have zero indication that he used it later in his life. He did use it early in his life. It was part of what oriented him toward elegance, and beauty, and making things easy for people, but he did not use it and come up with the iPad.
RLM: But we also know, for example, that Carl Sagan’s widow revealed he had used LSD but was afraid to tell the world. Even a man of his great magnitude was afraid to tell the world that he used it in some of those discoveries, which I think speaks volumes about the fear level that has been perpetrated in our country about psychedelic drugs.
JF: Fear and social stigma. When I walk around carrying this book—as authors do—almost everyone I meet suddenly begins telling me about their psychedelic trip experiences after I talk to them for a while.
2. Setting: Landscapes and Soundscapes
RLM: So we have some idea of what set means: your mental set, that is, what’s going on in your mind—your intention. The next thing one wants to be aware of when experimenting with psychedelic medicine is setting. What is setting?
JF: Setting is literally the physical situation in which you find yourself. Albert Hofmann, who was still giving two-hour lectures to professional groups at 101 years old, was asked—as he said, “only ten thousand times”—how should you take LSD? His answer was, “Always take it in nature.”
My answer is a little different. Take it in as safe and comfortable a setting as possible, which often is the living room, where you are able also to lie down to listen to music through headphones or earbuds; and to even put on an eye mask so that you can investigate the universe from the inside. Then perhaps later in the day it is good to be outside in nature to investigate the universe from the outside. Setting is the physical environment and the people who are in that environment during the psychedelic trip—which we’ll get to when we talk about sitter, because taking it around people you feel safe with turns out to be very important.
RLM: What about the place of ambient noise? Is that a factor that people should be cautious about? A machine noise, lawn mowers—the things that are going to intrude on consciousness?
JF: One of the wonderful things we have technologically are headphones, which block out ambient noise. Almost everyone, including indigenous people, find music or singing to be a very important part of the psychedelic experience. What we’ve found is, the reason people prefer music, and music without words, is that it allows them to stop thinking about daily trivia and to simply appreciate the enormous expansion of awareness that comes with almost any psychedelic trip. The most common comment we hear is, “I never knew music could be so beautiful and so intricate.”
You know, when you hear a symphony orchestra, and you kind of hear a blur of sound with the melody rising and falling? If you’re a professional musician you hear more, but on psychedelics, people report hearing each individual section, working with and against the others, and even report hearing individual players. So you’re hearing with a much higher level of awareness. Headphones seemed to be the best way to handle the lawn mower, the ambulance, and the jackhammers.
RLM: So the setting is the physical environment: nature, or some very safe-feeling and quiet place, using headphones to block out ambient sound.
3. Sitter: Your Safari Guide
RLM: What is the sitter?
JF: Well, I sometimes lose some of my hipper, younger friends when I say you should take psychedelic drugs with a guide. A guide is someone who knows the terrain, who’s been there a number of times, who is not disturbed by a little difficulty. The reason for having a guide is the same reason you start with a guide when scuba diving or learning to fly a plane.
The image that makes the most sense to me is of a safari guide, say in Africa. He doesn’t see the animals for you, but he may say, “You see that rhinoceros that’s running toward us? If I were you I would stand behind a tree.” Or, he may say, “That little patch of sand in front, to your right? That’s actually quicksand. You might want to walk around that.”
So a guide or coach seems to be invaluable during a psychedelic trip if you are taking your own experience seriously and you’re interested in using the materials the way they’ve been used in a sacred way in every culture we know of that had access to it.
4. Substance: “What” and “How Much”?
RLM: What do you mean when you say the “substance”?
JF: What you take matters. There is an enormous list of psychedelic drugs and substances: mushrooms, peyote, and mescaline, all of which have the same basic set of experiences available. The biggest difference is a psilocybin (mushroom) experience lasts six to eight hours and LSD lasts usually eight to twelve hours. LSD is the one I know the best.
There are other psychedelic families, including the one that is most exciting to people these days, called ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is really two plants combined together, and they have a much different, much more physical expression, and it takes you to a very different part of the radio dial of consciousness.
What you take matters, and how much you take matters enormously. If you take too much of anything—that includes aspirin and peanut butter—you will get ill. With psychedelics, that “too much” is of two sorts. One is you really won’t know where you are, and you can become disorganized and more frightened. Two—and for me this is equally important—you really won’t remember the useful or beneficial parts. You’ll simply have had a psychedelic trip that you have no remembrance of.
Some people take too much of a psychedelic drug to prove how macho they are, and that’s just a waste of everyone’s time. If you take a small dose, obviously you’ll have less of an experience. The purpose of the guide is so you don’t make a mistake about what’s correct for your body and your intention.
RLM: What is an appropriate dose if one wants to do inner-space work—one wants to explore and learn about oneself? What is a substantial dose of LSD in micrograms?
JF: One hundred to 200 micrograms is the dose people have used historically when they are working psychotherapeutically. If you’re working for spiritual experiences it’s double that [200 to 400 micrograms].
For people who are alcoholics—and the alcoholism research with LSD is excellent—it is usually necessary to take a larger dose, because they are used to alcohol, and it’s stifling their own altered state inside themselves. Again, the guide turns out to be invaluable. Giving dosage numbers over the air, given how different people are, is simply not the correct service.
RLM: Understood. But what you’re saying across the board, in terms of the normal curve, is that 300 to 400 micrograms is more of a spiritual dose, and 100 to 200 micrograms is more a dose for psychotherapeutic inner work.
JF: Right, psychotherapeutic inner work, where again, you need someone else with you during the psychedelic trip. And if you’re going for the higher doses, a guide is an absolute necessity if you wish to discover what it is that the classical mystics are talking about.
RLM: Is a higher dose 500, 600, 700 micrograms, or more?
JF: No, it’s 300 to 400 micrograms.
RLM: I see. What happens when you get above 400 micrograms?
JF: My recommendation is: don’t. You bring back too little and you risk too much.
5. Session: The Duration of Mind Alteration
RLM: What is meant by the “Session,” Jim?
JF: A session is the hours when the substance is affecting you—the length of the psychedelic trip. We’re talking about a substance in millionths of a gram. It actually leaves the body in about 1.5 hours, so most everything that goes on is within your own body and within your own body chemistry. But this is a full day or full night of events, and therefore you need to plan for that entire time.
Remember we need to reiterate—both my personal taste and my publisher’s taste is to remind you—these are illegal substances, and that affects all these things. These are illegal substances, and people are imprisoned for far longer than anybody thinks is sane for both using and distributing psychedelic drugs. Therefore, this is not to suggest that anybody should use these, because they are illegal. But a bit like sex, you’re probably going to be interested in it, so you might as well understand it. If you go ahead and do it, you might as well do it with some good sense to prevent illness, disease, and so forth.
With that caveat, this is only for people who have some understanding of what I’m talking about from their prior experience. We are looking at the ways to make things safe. What are the ways that lead to what is called a learning experience? Because we’re not just talking about a single psychedelic trip, like a roller coaster. A recent article pointed out that people who took psilocybin for spiritual purposes at Johns Hopkins University were still, fourteen months later, what they called “more open to the creative” and “more open relationships”—basically a healthier person as well as psychology can measure.*
RLM: I can feel my blood starting to boil when you talk about that study, Jim. I’m thinking about fifty years of government suppression of these medicines. Here we have one psychedelic medicine, which the people took one time, and a year later they’re still having positive effects. How many medicines do we have in our entire pharmacopeia that you can take one time and a year later you’re still feeling positive effects?
Basically, in the pharmaceutical industry you sign up for an annuity, right? You’re going to be taking the medication daily and paying for it for the rest of your life. On the other hand we have a psychedelic medicine people can take one time, and a full year later they’re still feeling measurable positive effects. However, no one can buy this new medicine right now. No one can get psychedelic drugs legally. Your doctor can’t prescribe it to you—there’s nowhere you can get it legally in the United States. Isn’t that correct?
JF: Let me add, Richard, a wonderful bit of film footage I saw recently about someone who took LSD once forty years ago, who was a serious, heavy-duty alcoholic—losing his job, his marriage was falling apart, life was terrible, and he was totally addicted. He took LSD once in a safe, secure, therapeutic setting, and forty years later, the filmmaker asks if he’s had alcohol since then. He said, “Oh no, not a drop.” The filmmaker then says something about willpower, and the man laughs and says, “No. No interest.”
The change is about learning—about worldview and changing the way you see things. We really need to begin to let go of the medical model. As you were saying, the medical model says, “Pill in, body changes. Pill out, body back to normal. Needs more pills for next cycle.” Psychedelic trips and medicine are really more like discovery. You only have to go to Europe once to find out that the world is much larger than the United States. You don’t have to keep going back every week to be reminded.
RLM: Yes, the psychedelic medicine finds the atherosclerosis of the spirit and cleans it out. It’s like a spiritual Roto-Rooter, and it gets all the junk out of us and clears us up.
JF: Right—one wants to see something that relaxes the hardening of the attitudes.
6. Life Group: Supportive Community
RLM: The sixth thing on your list of the six essential things to know for a safe psychedelic trip or journey is the life group after. Tell us about what that means psychologically. Tell us about the life group that you come into after you’ve had this psychedelic experience.
JF: Remember that for over 80 percent of people in one study, taking a psychedelic drug was the most important experience of their life.
Basically, the lifegroup is seen if you had this kind of transformative experience and you come back home to your family, and they say, “Isn’t that wonderful! We really are delighted that you also now understand what we’ve known,” or if you come back to your family and friends and they say, “That’s nonsense. You’re not supposed to know about God. There are books for that. You’re always supposed to go to some other authority to ask their opinion,” or even worse if they say, “This is craziness, and we’re not sure that you should be allowed to go to work!”
We’re talking about what kind of worldview you are in after a psychedelic trip or the use of psychedelic drugs. Fortunately, knowing a lot about your sphere of radio influence, there’s not much of a problem in this part of California, because so many people have already had these kinds of experiences and are basically aware that the material world simply can’t be all there is. No culture but ours has ever made that materialistic assumption, and as we all know, we got it wrong. The world is being loused up by people who have forgotten that the interconnectedness of all things turns out to be very important.
This interview is excerpted with permission from Psychedelic Medicine: The Healing Powers of LSD, MDMA, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca by Dr. Richard Louis Miller, M.A., Ph.D., Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
About The Author
Dr. Richard Louis Miller, M.A., Ph.D.,has been a clinical psychologist for more than 50 years. He is host of the syndicated talk radio show, Mind Body Health & Politics. The founder of the nationally acclaimed Cokenders Alcohol and Drug Program, he has been a faculty member at the University of Michigan and Stanford University, an advisor on the President’s Commission on Mental Health, a founding board member of the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco, and a member of the national board of directors for the Marijuana Policy Project. He lives in Fort Bragg and Wilbur Hot Springs, California. Find out more at psychedelicmedicinebook.com
James Fadiman, PhD,
is a psychologist and author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. He is one of the foremost pioneers of the potential for psychedelic substances for self-discovery, psychotherapy, and creative problem solving and has been involved with psychedelic research since the 1960s. Fadiman is the president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and the director at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He cofounded, along with Robert Frager, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, which later became Sofia University.