Integration is a much talked-about term among users of psychedelics these days, but I have found that for many it is still an abstract or vague concept. It can be hard to wrap one’s head around a process that is multi-dimensional and so deeply personal.
What exactly is meant by “integration” ?
What does integration really mean in practical and tangible terms? From my experience guiding people before, during, and after intensive, week-long ayahuasca retreats, integration is the process by which the experiences that occurred during ceremony, or during a psychedelic experience, translate into actual changes in your life.
Whether you had a profound mystical experience, deep lessons and new insights, a harrowing night of gripping fear, or just a lot of releasing and purging, something powerful happened and your consciousness shifted in some way. You’ve experienced a break with your ordinary understanding of reality. And as a result you’re differnt. You’ve changed, but it is not always clear exactly how or, more importantly, what that change might mean for your life.
Perhaps your worldview expanded, or your orientation towards life. Or maybe you experienced a change in your preferences, your feelings about things, or in your understanding of yourself. But the bottom line is something has unequivocally shifted.
Integration is the process of digesting that change and manifesting its fullest expression.
Anyone who has backpacked around the world or done extensive traveling knows that returning home can be a shock to the system. It can take months for you to adjust to being “back home.” You’ve had all these incredible experiences in that time and its changed you, but the life, the people, and the circumstances you’re returning to appear to be basically the same. They’ve been simply living out their regular lives. It takes time to adjust both the “new you” to your life and your life to the “new you.”
It is similar with psychedelic experiences. You’ve gone on a consciousness world-tour or experienced eternity in a night, and now you’re expected to go back to the office on Monday and make small talk with co-workers? This can be very jarring to the psyche and sometimes results in quite a bit of emotional turbulence. Making your integration process a priority will help you to smooth your experience and integrate in a more conscious and intentional manner.
What does integration look like?
There is no formula for integration because it is truly unique to the individual, their particular psychedelic experience, and their intentions. Each person has different reasons for engaging in intentional entheogenic work. For some, the focus is healing trauma or recovering from addiction. For others its about spiritual awakening and expansion. And for others its about growing and learning and experiencing the world differently. Whatever your intention is for engaging with psychedelics in the first place, will have a big impact on what your integration process looks like.
Generally, I find that integration is a gradually unfolding journey that for many people can take months to complete. For some people doing deep and ongoing plant medicine work, their entire life becomes all about integration for a couple of years. For others, particularly if they have experienced deep mystical states, it can be essentially a life-long journey. It really depends on the person and the nature of their experience.
Regardless of what your particular integration journey looks like, there are some practices I recommend that can help you make the most of your enthoegenic or plant medicine experience.
First, approach integration intentionally. If you engage with the process as an active participant, you are much more likely to realize the transformational potential of the plant medicines or psychedelics. This means really reflecting on what happened, what it means for your life, what messages and guidance were received and exploring how to put them into practice in your life.
- Give yourself time and space. If possible, do not return to your routine life right away. It can be helpful to have some time off between your entheogenic experience and your normal routine. Even a day of unscheduled time to yourself can be very helpful. Some time alone is very helpful here. Once you start talking about your experience with others, you are altering your relationship to it in some way. This is fine and normal but you will get more out of your experience if you have alone time to truly reflect on it and allow further insights to bubble up before switching to explanatory mode with friends and family.
- Spend some time in nature. Some quiet time in a natural setting, connecting to the world around you, can be very helpful. It can be helpful for grounding and stabilizing your energy. Natural settings are also good at helping put things in perspective.
- Allow yourself to learn how you’ve changed. Many people find they are drawn to different things or organically have different preferences. Your diet may change, what kind of substances you engage with can change, the kinds of people you are drawn to may change. Give yourself time to find out. Your body often knows before your conscious mind does so before engaging in your regular habitual patterns, check-in with your body and see if this still feels right for you. In some cases, you may find that it doesn’t.
- Pay attention to your intuition. After a profound psychedelic experience you may find that you are more aware of your intuition. You got out of your ordinary linear mindset for a while, which helps you to tune-in to intuitive and unconscious communication. There may be a lot of wisdom and additional insights from your intuition so pay attention. Don’t just ignore it. You may find that as you are going about your day-to-day life, certain experiences are highlighted somehow. They stick out as if something beyond conscious awareness is drawing your attention to it. Pay attention and explore these.
- Pay attention to and work actively with your dreams. Dreams are a great channel for tapping into the unlimited creativity and intuition of the unconscious mind and beyond. They are psychedelic in their own right! You may find that there is a lot of processing of the psychedelic experience that happens in your dreams. You can work with your dreams intentionally as well. Before you go to bed put some intentions into your dreams regarding your integration. If there is a lack of clarity regarding something that happened during your ceremony or psychedelic experience, ask for guidance. If you need helping grounding and balancing, ask for help with that. In the morning as soon as you wake up, try to recall your dreams and spend a little bit of time reflecting on them. Writing them down in a journal is really helpful to get the most of working with your dreams.
- Keep a journal . An integration journal can really help you to get a handle on the process and work through things as they come up. This doesn’t have to be a linear recounting of events. You can creatively express what is happening, how you are feeling, how your world is shifting. This is helpful in terms of integrating these shifts at a conscious mental level. Some people also find that artistic and musical creative expression is really helpful. This allows the non-linear aspects of your mind to process and express what’s happening as well.
- Talk to people you can trust. Verbally processing what happened with a trusted confidant can also be very helpful. But make sure its someone that is open to hearing about it and will not respond with judgment or close-mindedness. Obviously its more helpful to share your experience with other people who have gone through it.
- Start new practices. Because of the disruption of your ordinary state of consciousness, psychedelic and ceremonial experiences offer an incredible opportunity to make lasting practical and behavioral changes. There is a window of opportunity, before your brain gets back into automatic living mode, during which you can more easily institute new practices. These can be health practices, such as eating a healthier diet or starting a regular exercise practice, or be spiritual in nature, such as creating a routine for meditation, yoga, prayer, intention setting, etc.
- Throw out old practices. Similarly it is much easier to get rid of old unhealthful behaviors and practices that no longer serve you immediately after a psychedelic experience. Everything is more malleable so make changes before things start solidifying back into a regular routine.
- Get help if you need it. Integration can sometimes be turbulent. It may feel like your life has been turned upside down. If you are having trouble navigating the new you and your new world or find yourself unable to ground, reach out and get some help with what you are going through. If your ceremony or psychedelic experiences was facilitated, reach out to the facilitator for guidance. Or get help from a psychotherapist, a healer, or a spiritual teacher, ideally ones that are familiar with non-ordinary states of consciousness. There are also integration circles in some cities that are peer-facilitated meetings where people share their experiences with psychedelics. You don’t have to work through it alone.
Some Practices I Do Not Recommend
- Taking every vision you have in ceremony or in a psychedelic experience literally. It is best to treat them more like dreams in that they are providing symbols and communication that carry meaning but not necessarily the literal meaning that we think. It is best to explore these over time without attaching to your initial reaction. Often what that visionary experience means to you evolves over time. Don’t get attached to your initial reactions reached in the height of ecstasy.
- Returning home and making dramatic life changes immediately following a ceremony. Give yourself time to put the psychedelic experience in its proper place in your life. Maybe big dramatic changes are needed, but give yourself time to stabilize emotionally and energetically first. And even then, give it some time. Your understanding of what needs to happen may change over time. Give it the space to do that.
- Telling everybody you meet that they must take LSD or drink ayahuasca. This is a common impulse for people who had incredible life changing experiences. But remember, these practices aren’t for everybody. Some people have really hard times with psychedelics, even dark terrifying experiences. For others, such as those with serious psychiatric conditions, it can be dangerous. Recommending that everybody engage with psychedelics is reckless. Practice discernment in terms of who you talk about it with and how you talk about it.
In many ways the integration process is the most important part of working with plant medicines or other entheogens. It is where most of the work is done and where true transformation is manifested. To quote Jack Kornfield, after the ecstasy, the laundry.