Personal experience matters in guiding psychedelic journeys

Gepubliceerd op 30 september 2022 om 16:17

An embodied experience in a magical world

I love scuba diving. The dives I made in Indonesia, Colombia and the Galapagos are among my most memorable and cherished traveling moments. What makes diving so special is not just the visual experience of seeing spectacular underwater life – I vividly remember seeing manta rays, sharks, turtles, coral reefs thousands of brightly colored fish – but there’s a very rich embodied experience to diving. The feeling of being under water, of breathing under water… of weightlessly floating in a vast space… To be able to briefly visit this beautiful underwater world and be totally immersed in it – while not having any control of what you may encounter there – is magical... thrilling. It’s an experience that you can read about all you want but that you will only truly understand in its full embodied glory after you put on that scuba gear, jump in the water and descend into the unknown.

Being slightly claustrophobic, my first dives were not easy. My dive instructor recognized my initial panic and handled it so professionally. I trusted him and his experience and he managed to let me descend, at an adapted pace. Once at the bottom, he helped me to calm my breathing down and to fully surrender to the wonderful sensation of being and breathing underwater. After a few years passed, with my Open Water license collecting dust, I had another brief encounter with panic at my next dive. The surface of the Caribbean sea was very choppy and the waves scared me. I was already swimming back to the boat, trying to catch my breath. Luckily, there was a very experienced divemaster who could calm me down amidst the waves and who managed to show me that the water underneath the surface was calm. I just had to get past the surface. I could take this leap of faith because I trusted in his decade of diving experience. Not only did I end up having an amazing dive, but it was also a valuable life lesson. The experience of literally diving underneath the waves and (by breathing out and letting go) to encounter a vast tranquil space underneath… I still tap into that memory when I feel overwhelmed by life events. I owe that experience to a divemaster.


Taking psychedelics is a lot like scuba diving

There are many parallels between scuba diving and taking psychedelics. A psychedelic journey is an embodied experience that takes you into the depths of your mind and consciousness. A brief visit to a magical – and sometimes equally terrifying – world. There are no apt words to describe such a dive into our deep inner realms: reading about it will only prepare you to a certain extent. When people come out of the water, they are often thrilled, mesmerized or awe-struck. Some people come out transformed. There is immense potential for healing in these deep and mysterious waters of the psyche. Psychedelic experiences often introduce the diver to a greater sense of purpose and connection. It’s very natural that people would want to share these experiences with others. That they want to take others on their first dive.


Diving is not without risks – neither are psychedelics

However, it’s important to consider: would you want to go scuba-diving with someone who only made a handful of dives themselves? Scuba diving is not without risks, and neither are psychedelic journeys. There are many variables that can make the setting for a journey safe or not-so-safe. The level of experience of the guide, the quality of the diving equipment, the depth that people are taken to…  Staying near the surface while going on a mutual snorkeling trip is very different from descending twenty meters below the surface. Dosage, set and setting are the parameters that influence the depth of the psychedelic dive. The guide being part of the setting and often also the person recommending the dosage, the influence of the guide on the experience is not to be taken lightly.


Psychedelic guides need to know the territory well

How many personal experiences make you a psychedelic divemaster? I don’t have an answer to this question. There are other ways to access the ocean than psychedelics and such experiences should also be taken into account.

Like the ocean, consciousness is such a vast space that we cannot ask an individual to map every corner of it. We don’t require divemasters to know every sea in the world before they can take people under the surface in one particular area. Psychedelic guides don’t need to have experienced all layers of Dante’s inferno before they safely take people on a trip. However, like divemasters they need a certain set of skills to deal with currents and other potential underwater dangers. They need to know the territory they are diving in.


Additional training is needed for risky dives

Some waters are more risky than others and therefore require additional training – like cave diving or diving in strong currents. If a psychedelic guide is exploring the murky waters of trauma, they’d better have adequate training in that. Not only to support people while in the water, but especially after they come out of it. It’s possible to have a beautiful underwater experience only to resurface on the beach with hypothermia. Or to find profound answers at great depths and in a startled response, to ascend too quickly and die of decompression disease...

A trained divemaster can introduce you to the wonders of the underwater world, pointing out tiny nudibranches and camouflaged octopuses that you otherwise might have missed. They can help you descend below the surface and help you deal with panic, which for beginning divers is quite common. And they keep you safe in an unpredictable setting that is ruled by natural forces and therefore, uncontrollable. The more dives they’ve made, the more likely they are to have experiences in different types of situations. Of course, part of their training is theoretical. But at least an equal part of their training is practical, experiential. They learn to dive by diving.


It takes many dives and a lot of linear time

Do you want to be a psychedelic guide? Yes, you need theoretical knowledge. But you also need to dive yourself. First, you have to become a diver. Please familiarize yourself with the embodied feeling of diving. Visit different seas and bays and descend to different depths. Feel different temperatures on your skin. Becoming a psychedelic dive master does not happen over one ayahuasca ceremony. Not even over five psychedelic experiences. Although a single journey may certainly serve as the inspiration or be enough to hear the calling to becoming a guide – actually becoming one takes more than that. It takes linear time, mundane effort and lots of embodied experiences in the water.


Becoming a divemaster in a swimming pool?

There are different courses to get a scuba divemaster certificate. Some are more commercially driven than others. Some are short while in others it takes a lot longer to get a license. Some focus more on experience and others more on theoretical knowledge. In the psychedelic ‘ecosystem’, training programmes are developing everywhere. I’m not here to judge which ones are worth your while – it depends largely on your location, budget and background. But please be weary of courses that offer you a self proclaimed title, or promise to turn you into a psychedelic therapist, without paying attention to the diving itself. Would you sign up for a divemaster course where you only practice in the swimming pool – or worse, where you “learn” the skills without getting into the water?


Content of experience does not equate to level of experience

My father was a diver in a Dutch diving association. He was worried when I got my open water certificate at PADI. As a diver who was swimming laps with weights in the pool every week, he could not fathom how people could earn any sort of diving certificate without going through the kind of endurance and emergency situation training that he did. Our diving experiences were very different – most of his dives were in the cold, murky and challenging Dutch waters, while I was spoiled in tropical waters with a visibility of at least ten meters and never wore more than a three millimeter wet-suit. While I was lucky to have seen manta rays and hammerhead sharks, my father never saw anything larger than an octopus. Of course, this had nothing to do with the level of our diving experience: it was a combination of setting and luck. We both loved diving and we both introduced others to the magic of the underwater world. My father actually took people with him, underneath the surface. Because he was a certified diver, with training and experience. I only used words and pictures to convey enthusiasm in others, because I only have a handful of scuba dives under my belt.


I don’t take people cave diving

Ever since my first few dips in the psychedelic realm, I’ve been wanting to introduce people to this magical place. But I waited and waited, while learning more, reading more and yes, diving more myself. Twenty years after my first psychedelic experience and after several years of experience as a sitter in psychedelic crisis situations, I considered my formation complete enough to start my own practice as a psychedelic guide. I don’t take people cave diving, because I’m not a trauma therapist. I don’t deliberately take people into the strong currents of mental illness, because I haven’t been adequately trained in this field. I reject a lot of people who would no doubt benefit from psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, embedded in a therapeutic context that I cannot offer. A type of care that, to this date and in the case of psilocybin, is only legally available to patients in the context of clinical trials.


Guides have responsibility

Introducing my clients to the psychedelic experience is a real privilege and it’s an extremely humbling experience to hold space for their joy, sadness, grief, wonder and all the other facets of the human experience. But I also recognize the great responsibility that we have as guides – not only to the people we take with us under water, but also to the psychedelic community at large. Many many people spent many many years building this psychedelic ecosystem we’re in now and we better take care of it and make sure it doesn’t collapse. Psychedelics are going mainstream, which is exciting, but this comes with many new challenges. Some of these I’ve written about before, others I might write about at another time. I don’t have answers to all the challenges. But I feel very strongly about the following.


Dear aspiring psychedelic guides. Please don’t take people underwater if you’ve only made a few dives yourself. Practice patience and first become an experienced diver. The waters are deep and the stakes are high.


What about mental healthcare professionals?

I was going to end on that note, but I feel that I still need to address that one burning question. How about the mental healthcare therapists and psychiatrists who work with psychedelics, in clinical trials and beyond – shouldn’t they also be experienced psychedelic divers before they work with these substances?

Well. This is a sensitive question, I’ve come to realize. I have been hesitant to speak my mind about it while I was in the board of the OPEN Foundation. But now that I’m an independent person again, I feel I can share my personal opinion.

Stay tuned for my next blog...